Best Way to Say No

  • April 02, 2024

Dear Advy,

As a young lawyer, I’m finding it difficult to set healthy boundaries. The pressure to always say “yes” when more senior lawyers ask that I take on more work than I feel I can handle is huge. My biggest concern is that if I say “no”, those lawyers will stop bringing work to me or I will be seen as not being able to hack the pace. Any suggestions on managing this?

Best Way to Say No

Dear Best Way to Say No,

You are right to consider implementing healthy boundaries early in your career. Prolonged pressure and the chronic stress associated with taking on more work than you can handle leads to work-related burnout for many lawyers. The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada released in 2022 confirmed that the physical and psychological fatigue and exhaustion that results from burnout can lead to “cynicism, detachment, and an undervaluing of personal accomplishments.” Ironically, this often leads to a decrease in performance in the workplace which directly affects the very thing you are concerned about.

By reaching out, you may have already recognized that it’s unhealthy to say “yes” all the time; it is virtually impossible to be all things to all people all the time. We all have different demands and needs throughout our lives, and it’s okay, and perhaps even essential, to vocalize your needs on your own terms regardless of the experiences of your colleagues and more senior lawyers.

Developing your voice to advocate for yourself is something that does not come naturally to a lot of people and may take time and practice. It might be helpful to consider that when more senior lawyers approach you, they may have no context for how busy you are and assume you will feel comfortable speaking up if you are too busy. By advocating for yourself, you are not only managing your own boundaries but helping your colleagues manage their risk that the work gets done on time and to the standard expected.

So how do you decide what to say “yes” and “no” to? The key is to ask the right questions at the time someone approaches you with a request. This could include asking about the expected results of the work, the timing for the work needing to be done and the importance of the deadline, and if there are any known obstacles to getting the work done. Asking these questions serves a few different purposes. It gives you time to overcome your gut reaction to say “yes” and objectively assess if you can help. It shows the requesting lawyer that you want to help and clarifies for you both if there is flexibility in the timing as well as any consequences if the work is not done on time. Finally, it gives you sufficient information to articulate a thoughtful, honest answer in one of the following ways:

Thank you for thinking of me for this work, I would be happy to help.

Thank you for thinking of me for this work. My current workload wouldn’t allow me to meet the noted deadline, but I could help if there is flexibility in moving the deadline/I could collaborate with others/other solution.

Thank you for thinking of me for this work. Unfortunately, with my current workload I wouldn’t be able to complete this work within the required timeframe. I would really like to help with other work you may have once my workload lightens in (insert length of time).

The above wording is meant to provide examples of what you could say when the answer is yes, maybe or no/not right now, and what you actually say is entirely up to you. Writing out the questions and possible answers and practicing them out loud, either alone or with a trusted friend, can make it easier to vocalize your answer in the way you intend when a lawyer approaches you with work.

If it’s difficult to provide an answer on the spot, you could ask for time to consider the request and get back to the requesting lawyer.

Another helpful strategy is to engage the requestor in solving the problem. The common problem you both face is that you don’t have capacity to get the work done now. Solve it together. Ask them what they suggest you do or what they would do in your shoes. They might be better situated to help you navigate competing timelines and personalities in the group. They may help you shift other timelines or provide insight that will help you prioritize now and in the future.

You may find value in reflecting on where the pressure you feel originates from. Many lawyers experience the same concern as you, and while sometimes the concern stems from or is amplified by high workplace expectations and culture, sometimes its due to the internal pressure we place on ourselves. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. Knowing where the pressure originates from can help you determine what other boundaries or steps would be helpful. You may find value in exploring this with a trusted mentor or counsellor, and peer support and counsellors are available through your local Lawyer Assistance Program.

I would be remiss to not acknowledge that it is possible that even if you use the above approach, by saying “no” certain lawyers will stop bringing work to you or draw a negative inference. You may also find that other lawyers gravitate toward you as they appreciate your thoughtfulness and honesty and know that when you say “yes” they can count on you to deliver great results. Over time you will determine whether your values and needs generally align with your workplace environment, or whether changes are required to bring them into alignment. Know that legal workplaces come in all shapes and sizes and if this particular workplace can’t respect your healthy boundaries there are many that will.

Be well,

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