The Art of Saying No


Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

We’re all busy lawyers. Our practices keep us busy. Our lives keep us busy. But when we stop constantly saying “yes” and start saying “no” to things that don’t advance us professionally or personally, we take back control over one of our most critical commodities: our time.

If you can learn to say “no” at the right times and in the right ways, you’ll be able to do so without feeling guilty. Additionally, you’ll increase your effectiveness as a lawyer and your overall feelings of satisfaction and balance.

Ask yourself: how comfortable do you feel saying “no” to the demands, requests, or suggestions of others?  Are you being as assertive with others as you are when you are zealously advocating for a client? Do you zealously advocate for yourself and your own time?

If you end up feeling like a doormat, find yourself doing things you don’t want to do, or quiver at the thought of asking for what you do want, you are likely being too passive. Take control of your own schedule and your own life.

Is it always possible to say “no” when things come down the pike that we don’t want to do or don’t have time to do? No, of course not. Sometimes we simply don’t have a choice when we are handed a project that must get done or a deadline looms. But in many cases, we do have a choice. We don’t have to go out to yet another networking event. We don’t have to show up at optional meetings or lunches. We don’t have to coach Little League, organize the neighborhood picnic, or be the firm’s social event planner. That is, unless we want to.

Sure, when someone asks you to do something you don’t really want to do, you can avoid conflict by saying “yes,” but it actually adds to your long-term stress. Rather than enduring a bit of short-term angst in saying “no,” we often resign ourselves to a long-term task that we resent.

Honestly, consider which is better: avoiding conflict and making others happy by saying “yes” or living by your own priorities and values by saying “no” when you want and need to? Work/life balance is one of the most common issues I work with my clients on, and the ability to say “no” is a critical skill in creating more balance and less stress in your life.

Here are a few ways I’ve learned that you can say no in a firm, but respectful, way.

  1. The simple “no.” Could sound like: “Thanks, but I have to pass on that.” (Tip: Say it, then stop talking.)
  2. The scheduling-conflict “no.” Could sound like: “That’s so nice of you to think of me, but my schedule is already booked at that time.”
  3. The gracious “no.” Could sound like: “I really appreciate you asking me, but my time is already committed.”
  4. The greater-good “no.” Could sound like: “I’m trying to create more balance in my life right now, so I’m having to turn down new commitments. I’m sure you understand.”
  5. The recommendation “no.” Could sound like: “That isn’t a good fit for me right now, but I know someone else who might be able to assist you.”
  6. The pass-the-buck “no.” Could sound like:  “I promised my (fill in the blank: coach, therapist, spouse, etc.) I wouldn’t take on any more commitments right now.”
  7. The apologetic “no.” Could sound like: “I’m sorry and I wish I could, but it’s not going to work right now.”
  8. The door-open-a-crack “no.” Could sound like: “Give me a few days to think about it, and I’ll get back to you.”
  9. The family/friend obligation “no.” “I appreciate the invitation, but my daughter has a piano recital at the same time that I just can’t miss.”
  10. The sort-of-yes, sort-of-no “no.” Could sound like: “I can’t do that, but I could do …” (Use this one when you want to help, but limit the commitment to something that is comfortable for you.)

Of course, I encourage you to be honest and genuine. Don’t run around making up excuses about your son’s soccer game when everyone knows you are single and childless. Find a way to say “no” that works for you, is honest and true, and leaves no room for negotiating.

Any other ways you have found to avoid making commitments that don’t move you closer to your career and personal goals? Please add them in the comments below (or say “no” and don’t do it: it’s up to you!)



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  • If you’re a junior associate in a big firm, each of these can be relabeled The I’ll Show Myself The Door “No.”

    • BL1Y – Thanks for your comment so I can clarify. I totally agree that saying “no” at some stages in one’s career might be a bit of professional suicide if you were saying it to a partner, senior associate, etc. My suggestions for saying “no” are not for those situations. Instead, I was offering ideas for saying “no” to other commitments (i.e. civic, volunteer, otherwise optional) that pull you and your time away from your priorities. In those cases, saying “no” to those non-essential tasks means creating more time for doing quality work or spending time on things that really matter to you in terms of your personal life. I hope that clarification makes my suggestions more useful.

  • Nena Street

    BL1Y is right to point out that saying “no” to partners or senior associates in any law firm, but particularly at a large firm, can be really hard. BUT, as a senior associate in a large firm, I promise you that mastering the art of saying no in practice is ESSENTIAL to building a successful practice, good reputation and balanced life. Because this is so important and my advice is fairly nuanced, I think I’ll just write a post about it. Stay tuned.

    • Nena – Excellent points! There are times and places for saying “no”, and other times/places where it’s not an option. But the key is to say “no” where saying “yes” would mean committing time/energy to something that doesn’t move us forward professionally or personally. I’m looking forward to your follow-up post on this, as I agree completely that a saying a well-intentioned, well-thought-out and well-timed “no” is absolutely critical to both professional and personal success.

  • Good article. I agree that when you say “no”, you should stop talking (the simple no). If you give a reason, it gives the asker a chance to argue with you or explain why it is not truly a conflict, etc. With just, “thanks, but no” they have nowhere to go.

    Now, for the Big Law Associate, I agree, you would have to be a hell of a lot more tactful. In that case, though, telling the partner what other work you have for her or other partners, and asking how to prioritize your work, is the way to go. Example: I’m happy to research that issue for you, Partner. Right now I’m working on a brief for Other Partner. What is your time frame?

    As a partner (though not at big law), I appreciate knowing if someone will get to my work at a later date, versus just saying yes, and not telling me they already have a full plate.

    • Melissa – You make a great suggestion in terms of letting “Partner” know that you are working on something for “Other Partner.” Better to underpromise and overdeliver. To your point, it’s better to let someone know that you’ll work on something for them, but can’t do it immediately, instead of a quick “yes” but then delivering substandard or late work because your plate was already full. Also agreed on your comment on the “simple no.” It’s hard to stop talking after the “no,” but generally the most effective for the reasons you stated.