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When No Means Yes

Benjamin K Sanchez


  • Entrepreneurial attorneys must recognize how “no” can be used to their advantage.
  • Cull through business at least annually to determine what to keep and discard.
  • Saying no to power and authority may be hard at first, but it helps attorneys gain respect in the legal community and builds confidence to become better advocates for clients.
When No Means Yes
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Given the prominence of the #MeToo movement, we should all be aware by now (if we weren’t already taught by our parents) that no means no in the context of consent to sex. In the world of business (and especially entrepreneurship), however, no often does not mean no. Sometimes, no means yes. Sometimes, no means try again. We entrepreneurial attorneys must be able to recognize the power of no and how to use it to our advantage.

Opening Yourself Up

Years ago, my practice was a niche practice. I had one primary client that kept giving me more and more work. That client would terminate other attorneys in the state and give me their work. I started as a true solo attorney, sharing offices with two other attorneys. I eventually built a four-lawyer firm with a dozen staff. I had thousands of cases filed in courts throughout the state. In fact, my firm was the second-highest filer in the state for a few years. As my firm grew, I had to turn away new business from potential clients. Eventually, 95 percent of my firm’s business came from this one client.

Then one day the client informed me that it had to scale back its operations in my state and would need to run the cases through one of its in-house attorneys. My firm immediately came crashing down around me. I had to give my employees two-weeks’ notice. I kept one administrative assistant for a couple months to help me transition the thousands of files back to the client. Thereafter, I became a true solo once again, just a few short years after I had started as a solo attorney.

That experience opened my eyes to the power of no! Because I did not say no when the client kept terminating other attorneys in the state and giving me the work, time for other clients became scarce. Eventually, I had no time to do anything else but this one client’s work. Because my practice and clientele were not balanced and distributed, I had nothing to fall back on when the primary client finally said no to me.

I learned that sometimes saying no allows you to open up to other opportunities. It was a hard lesson to learn, but learn it I did. I now routinely say no to potential clients that just are not a fit for my firm or to cases that really don’t fall within my primary practice areas. Saying no has been rewarding.

Learn to Say No Even While Afraid

Most attorneys come to a point in their business or career in which the answer to a major question should be “no,” but to decline would mean to face fear in the process. The fear we face is self-imposed, and most of the time we are too weak to believe in ourselves, so we take the easy yes instead of the difficult no.

Have you ever been presented an opportunity that you really should decline, but saying no would mean trading an easy present for an unknown and potentially difficult future? Many of us solos have a few chances in our careers to accept an offer with a firm and throw in the towel on our own practice. The easy yes comes with thoughts of perceived financial security, less stress in managing a firm and paying for overhead, and more time for ourselves and our family. But the yes also comes from the fear of missing out, fear of not knowing if we can survive for much longer despite the fact that our resilience is obvious, and fear of relying on ourselves instead of others.

I encourage each of you to take some time in the next three months to truly come to grips with the fact that you are strong. We often tell ourselves we are weak because that’s what we were told growing up, that’s what we learned when we compared ourselves to those we perceived to be better than us, and that’s what we succumbed to because we were too lazy or afraid to do the hard sowing without being able to picture the glorious reaping yet to come. I say to you now, however, that you are not weak. You have made it this far. I presume if you are reading this column, you are most likely a licensed attorney, and thus the proof of your strength is already evident. If you give yourself the opportunity to make decisions out of confidence and strength instead of fear and weakness, you will undoubtedly become a more fulfilled person and in turn will have a positive ripple effect in this world!

Gaining Respect While Saying No to Power

In the courtrooms where I practice, I sometimes see judges and attorneys abusing their authority and power over a young or inexperienced attorney. Quite frankly, these abusive judges and attorneys do it to everyone, but it’s most glaring when the power disparity is obvious. If you are on the receiving end of this abuse of authority and power, then I commend you to stand up and say no!

I am in my 20th year of practice, and during these 20 years, I have learned from great attorneys who showed by example that saying no to power means saying yes to much more. I took these lessons to heart and am unapologetically unafraid to stand up to power and authority used for the purposes of bullying. Whether it’s fighting judges who abuse their citizen-given (not God-given) authority or attorneys who run over and take advantage of younger or inexperienced attorneys or pro se litigants, I am ready, willing, and able to say no! By saying no, I’ve gained the respect of others, including the very ones to whom I say no.

Give yourself the freedom to say no to those in authority and power, and you will be amazed at how much more confidence you will gain—and thus become a better advocate for your clients. It may be hard at first, but you will gain well-deserved respect in your legal community.

Say No to 80

In 1906 the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto developed what’s now called the 80/20 Rule, or the Pareto Principle. Generally speaking, it means that 80 percent of your results comes from 20 percent of your efforts (for more, see It can be translated into a number of areas, such as 20 percent of your clients represent 80 percent of your business.

Thus, when I encourage you to say no to 80, I mean that you should determine the top 20 percent of your clients, leads, and marketing, and say no to the remaining 80 percent. You should focus on the 20 percent that brings in 80 percent of your firm’s success, whether it be through client work, lead generation, or marketing efforts.

Although you may be afraid to throw away 80 percent of your volume in clients, leads, and marketing, I suggest to you that when you say yes to quality and no to quantity, the dividends of that effort will be exponential.

This is not a one-time exercise. You should cull through your business at least annually to determine what to keep and what to discard. And there’s no reason to wait until next year to start. Figure it out now and see how it works for the next few months, and then do it again in December or January. You can thank me later!

Saying No to Get Ahead

A simple Google search of “when no means yes in business” will return a plethora of articles and videos on this simple yet profound concept. What I have given you here is a great start, and if you do my suggested exercises, you will be way ahead of the game. Most people don’t understand the power of no in their own business. The sooner you do, the better your business will become!