Almost all of my coaching clients have said at one time or another, “I just don’t know how to say no.” Whether it’s an associate or partner who’s so overburdened that she’s having trouble meeting her deadlines and/or producing an acceptable work product, a lawyer who’s bemoaning a difficult client and wrestling with how to screen clients in the future, or a lawyer who wants to establish strong boundaries to prevent his work from overruning his personal life, saying “no” emerges as a key skill. But especially for lawyers in private practice, “no” can feel like blasphemy.
Often, part of our coaching work is to reframe what “no” means. For instance, saying no to additional work when your plate is already full to overflowing is actually saying yes to the question, “Shall I meet my current deadlines and deliver a good product?” Saying no to a client who’s clearly going to be troublesome (perhaps expecting unreasonable results, challenging every item on a legitimate bill, or being just plain nasty) means saying yes to reserving your time and energy for clients you can help who will faciliate and appreciate that service. And saying no to work-related demands that burden personal time is critical for the selective disengagement that allows full professional engagement at the appropriate times.
The underlying step that makes this reframing possible is knowing what you want. These examples are fairly simple, but clients of course face more challenging situations, such as taking on time-consuming work that will be demanding and draining but will give the lawyer an opportunity to shine within the firm and with clients. When that’s weighed against a long-awaited vacation or even serving more routine client needs, the lawyer needs to know where her priorities are given all of the circumstances. Billing heavily everyday for a month takes on different meanings at the beginning of a job, during an emergency situation, and during times of ordinary workflow. Knowing where to set the boundary is critical to knowing whether a request oversteps that boundary.
Are you facing a situation in which you should say no? What will you say yes to instead?