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November/December 2021

Taking the Lead: The Power of "No"

Linda Klein and John Hinton IV

Do you know someone who has mastered time management? A person who routinely completes not only the “must do” tasks but also the “want to do” tasks? Someone who does not live under the stress that the tasks at hand exceed the hours available to complete them? We don’t know anyone like that either. That’s why resources on time management abound. (Our search for time management books on Amazon returned more than 60,000 results.) Of course, no time management techniques can add hours to your day. Therefore, most of these resources focus on efficiency—squeezing the most production out of every hour. Despite that value, efficiency also has its limits. You can pack more tasks into your day and still fail to get done what you need to accomplish. There is another, perhaps more important, component of time management that is also a common struggle.

The Need to Say "No"

We are constantly bombarded with opportunities for how to spend our time, and we filter our decisions on those opportunities through two universal words: “yes” and “no.” Although the person who never says yes is unlikely to find success, that is rarely the problem with lawyers. Rather, more often than not, we get into trouble by saying yes to too many opportunities that we should decline. In doing so, we willingly commit to more tasks than we should accept, which leaves us with no time margins or, worse yet, insufficient time to complete what really needs to be done.

The Power to Say "No"

There is so much of our lives that we do not control, such as the circumstances into which we are born, our upbringing, our innate gifts and talents, and the number of our days. Nevertheless, there are some areas that our will can control. Our decisions—that is, our choices between yes and no—shape what we will do with our lives. The power to say no and take control of our lives is a talent innate to every person, as the parents of every toddler will attest. However, if we each have that power, then why is using it such a struggle?

The answer to that question differs with each person, but three reasons appear to us to be common among lawyers. First, we fear missing an opportunity. Second, we experience pressure to keep up with one’s peers within the firm and the bar in general. Third, we avoid the possibility of disappointing our clients—both external and internal. No one would quarrel that these are necessary considerations in our decision making, but when they drive us to say yes to activities that are unwise in the balance, they can cause us to fill our calendars with commitments that work against achieving those goals. Does your fear of missing an opportunity cause you to accept so many commitments that you don’t have the margin to accept a high-return commitment and deliver it with excellence when the opportunity arises? Do you have clients who have unreasonable deadline expectations, yet you find yourself unable to say no to their requests out of concern they will take their business elsewhere? Perhaps they would adjust their expectations if you placed reasonable boundaries on their demands. If not, perhaps your practice would be better off without them as a client.

The Opportunity to Teach "No"

Saying no is an acute issue with young lawyers. They are eager to please and don’t want to disappoint their bosses, which leads to overcommitment. This helps no one. The senior lawyer assumes the task will be completed only to find out at the due date that the work is not complete or has been poorly performed. At that point, there is usually insufficient time to redo the task. The senior lawyer is frustrated and perhaps embarrassed in front of a client. The junior lawyer has done a disservice to the client, the senior lawyer and that junior lawyer’s standing within the firm.

We encourage you to create an environment within your firm where young lawyers are not only encouraged but expected to carefully consider the opportunities presented to them and communicate with senior lawyers when they believe they should decline opportunities. Although junior lawyers don’t have full discretion of what work to decline, they should have the freedom to communicate when they believe that it would be best to do so. The senior lawyers can then make the difficult choices and help their younger colleagues learn how to manage their load.

It is often said that the willingness to say no is the most important thing that a person can do in their lives. We freely admit our guilt here. For those like us who are unaccustomed to saying no, this is a good reminder of the value of that word to the success of our firms and individual careers.

Linda Klein

Senior Managing Shareholder

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. [email protected]

John Hinton IV


John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. [email protected]

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