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Getting to “Nope!”

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Like many young associates, when I first started practicing, I was eager to prove my worth, show the partners and senior associates at my firm that I deserved to hang with them, and that they could count on me to not only “get it done” but “do it well.”   The word “no” simply did not exist in my world;  it had been eviscerated from my vocabulary.  Anything that hit my desk would be handled with unmatched enthusiasm and legal acuity.  I received rave reviews from my superiors and they kept coming back to me for more help.  I never turned any project away.  I did it all.  I was a success.

I also gained 30 pounds and a sleep disorder that year, and I didn’t read a single book for pleasure.  Is that the picture of success?  In retrospect, I am not so sure.

Now, to be clear, I worked for kind, compassionate, brilliant lawyers.  That’s part of why I wanted to please them.  It’s part of why I dreaded saying “no” when they asked for help. It took me about three years to understand that they weren’t responsible for controlling my workload, I was.   I remember the first time I said “no” at work.  There was a lot of sweating, a lot of panic, and a little rehearsal.  But I did it.  And you know what?  Nothing bad happened and I still had a job.

Fast forward a few years to another challenge – parenthood.  Just as I wanted to be the perfect associate, I also want to be the perfect mother—showing up for every class party, being the first to volunteer for EVERYTHING, and NEVER forgetting to wipe down the grocery cart before the kid sits in it.   Just add another 30 pounds and a new kind of sleep disorder.  No problem, right?  I can handle it.

For some of us, learning to politely decline someone’s request, or letting an opportunity go, is a real challenge, especially for professionals with demanding careers.  This is especially true considering the heavy focus on our profession’s duties to others: our duties to colleagues, our duties to tribunals, and above all, our duties to our clients.  However, saying “no” is an extremely important skill.  And I call it a skill because for some of us, it is something that needs to be acquired.  (The next step is letting go of the guilt associated with saying “no,” but there is only so much I can tackle in one blog post!)

Rule 1.1—the very first rule of the Rules of Professional Conduct demands competence.  Although we tend to view “competence” in concrete terms such as “legal knowledge” and “skill,” also consider that when we are in high demand and over-extended, there is a corresponding risk that the quality of our work may suffer.  We may not be as thorough; we may not be as prepared.  We may not be fulfilling our duties to our clients.

Knowing your limits and finding the courage to enforce them are key to competence in the practice of law.  When we take care of ourselves, we are better equipped to care for others, whether they are our families, our colleagues, or our clients.