Why It’s Important To Be Able To Say

Why It’s Important To Be Able To Say "No"

Some people seem to struggle when it comes to saying no. Perhaps they view it as requiring them to be confrontational and confronting someone can be a difficult thing to do. Or, perhaps they view it as being rude. As an aside, while one certainly could say no in a rude way, the act of saying no — in and of itself — is not rude. Regardless of the reason one might struggle with saying no, being able to communicate your boundaries is a valuable skill to have. In fact, in the context of law practice, the ability to say no can be a real lifesaver because we’re talking about risk management and quality-of-life issues here.

Why Saying "No" can be a Lifesaver

When I was visiting law firms around the country, I would often ask a few questions about firm culture in an attempt to understand the environment in which everyone was working. For example, was the culture conducive to allowing attorneys and staff to prioritize wellness? If yes, that was great! If not, I started to become concerned. The risk of a malpractice claim was now higher than it otherwise would have been if for no other reason than missteps are more likely to happen when someone isn’t at their emotional best or if their batteries are running low.

After further questioning in those settings where things were less than ideal, it wasn’t uncommon to find work hours for some were beyond reasonable. Now, hear me clearly, I’m not trying to suggest that working long hours is a direct cause of malpractice claims. It is not. In fact, I have met a number of attorneys and staff who work incredibly long hours and remain quite happy and content because they have found ways to stay refreshed and sharp during the time they devote to their personal lives.

That said, I’m going to focus on those whose work circumstances were clearly burdensome. When pressed, I would often hear comments along the lines of “I have a hard time saying no, which is why I have taken on more than I should have,” or “This client has been a client of mine for many years and I can’t risk saying no to additional work, even though the work isn’t something I’m comfortable handling.” I’ve also been told “While I knew I shouldn’t have said yes to some of my clients; I never know when the next client might come through that door, and I have bills to pay.” I have even heard “Making these kinds of personal sacrifices is one of the costs that come with being a member of this honored profession. Afterall, the law is a jealous mistress.”

As I see it, the inability or refusal of an attorney to say no to taking on more clients than she should, to willingly take on additional work that is beyond her comfort zone, or to agreeing to work with a recognized problem client requesting her services can become problematic. While the occasional sacrifice is often fine, for the attorney who habitually struggles with saying no, the work environment can quickly become burdensome and eventually lead to feeling significantly overwhelmed. This isn’t good, both from a quality-of-life and risk management perspective. If left unattended for any length of time, one’s health will suffer because of it.

How should an attorney say no?

Every attorney needs to know how to say no; and it can be done creatively, respectfully, and non-confrontationally. A statement along the lines of “At present, due to the number of pending matters here at our firm, we are not able to take your matter on. Please understand that our firm’s policy is to decline representation on any matter where we do not feel confident that we can invest all the time and energy necessary to do the best possible job for you” is a very respectful way to say no. “While I greatly appreciate your continued loyalty, my legal judgment tells me that you are best served by my assisting in finding you an attorney with the level of experience this particular matter calls for” is another considerate way to say no. If your practice is going to be truly full for a time, be proactive. Think about having staff let all potential clients know that you are not currently accepting any new clients for X number of months, and they are free to check back at that time. All these approaches are examples of ways to say no in a non-confrontational and respectful way.

One final thought shared with the intent of further driving a point home. Years ago, I had a friend who was a physician. This guy would constantly allow his patient schedule to get overbooked knowing full well he was never going to be able be able to keep to the schedule. Yet every afternoon, without telling anyone and in spite of patients waiting, he would simply walk off site and go grab a cup of coffee for ten to fifteen minutes. Although this drove his staff crazy, he always came back refreshed and ready to take on the rest of the day.

I eventually realized this was his way of reminding himself that he was the one in control of his professional life. And while I wouldn’t recommend his approach as an effective law practice management technique, there is something of value to be learned here. As I see it, my friend was on to something. So, go ahead and say no when necessary. Your long-term health and wellbeing may very well depend upon it.

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Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 550 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.