Some people seem to view having to say “no” as requiring them to be confrontational and confronting someone can be a difficult thing to do. Others view saying no as being rude. Now, certainly how a “no” is delivered can be rude; but the act of saying no in and of itself isn’t. Regardless of the reason or situation in which one might struggle with saying no, it’s a valuable skill to learn. In fact, in the context of a law practice, the ability to say no can be a real life saver. We’re talking about risk management and quality of life issues here.

When visiting law firms around the country, I often ask a few questions about firm culture in an attempt to understand the environment in which everyone is working. For example, is the setting conducive to allowing staff and attorneys to maintain a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives? If yes, that’s great!  If no, I become concerned. The risk of a malpractice claim is now higher than it otherwise would have been if for no other reason than that missteps can happen more readily when we’re not at our emotional best or if our batteries are running low.

Upon further questioning in those settings where things are out of balance, it is common to find that work hours for some are beyond reasonable. I am 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. These individuals, however, also often play hard when they are not working. Most importantly, they have found ways to stay refreshed and sharp during the time the devote to their personal lives. Instead, I want to focus on those individuals who feel that their own work circumstances are burdensome. When pressed, I will often hear from these individuals comments along the lines of “I really don’t know how to turn down clients so I have taken on more than I had planned,” or “This client has been a client of mine for many years and I can’t risk saying no to the additional work even though the work isn’t something I am comfortable handling.” Others have shared “While I knew I shouldn’t have taken this client’s matter on, I didn’t know when the next prospective client might come through the door and I do have bills to pay.” I have even heard “Making these kinds of personal sacrifices is one of the costs that come with being an attorney.”

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 readily evolve into a serious problem. While the occasional sacrifice is often fine, for the attorney who habitually struggles with saying no, the work environment can quickly be experienced as a huge burden and result in a significant feeling of being overwhelmed. This isn’t good, both from a quality of life and risk management perspective. If left unattended for any length of time burnout and or depression is often what follows.

This is why it’s important to learn to say no. It can be done creatively, respectfully, and non-confrontationally. A statement like “At present, due to the number of pending cases here at our firm, we are not able to represent you in this case. Please understand that it is our firm policy to decline representation on any matter where we do not feel confident that we can invest all of the time and energy necessary to do the best possible job for our client” 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 you in finding an attorney with the level of experience this particular matter calls for” is another positive way to say no. If your practice is going to be truly full for a time, consider instructing staff to inform all potential clients that you currently are not accepting any new clients for X number of months and that they are free to check back at that time. All of these approaches are examples of ways to say no in a non-confrontational and respectful way.

Allow me to share one final thought with the intent of further driving a point home. Time has always interested me and I am particularly fascinated by how others manage time. A number of years ago I knew a physician who regularly allowed his patient schedule to get overbooked and he never was able to “run on time.” 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 came to realize that this was his way of reminding himself just who was in control of his life. He was. While I wouldn’t recommend this as a way to manage time or clients, there is something of value to be learned here. As I see it, this doctor had the right idea. He knew who was in control of his professional life. He was. So, go ahead, say no when necessary. It’s ok.

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