The Power of “No”

Volume 40 Number 2


About the Author

Tom Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics, and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division (LP). He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette PA, in Asheville, N.C., where he is a managing shareholder. 

Law Practice Magazine | March/April 2014 | The ABA TECHSHOW 2014 IssueWHEN WE FIRST ENTER the practice of law, it is all about saying “yes.” We want to get out there and “be somebody” in our community. We want to be busy and productive. Membership on a committee in my civic club? Sure. Chair of a committee at the chamber of commerce? Of course. Counsel to a nonprofit board? Why not? Leadership in my church? How could I say “no”? Work in an area I am not familiar with? Yes, I need the income. We believed that the greater our exposure in the community, the greater the likelihood of success in our individual practice of law. As we continue to advance in our professional development, we come to discover two truths about ourselves and our role in our profession and community. First, that we really cannot do it all, and our time is truly limited. Second, that it is quite difficult to refuse the requests of others desiring our help. We have been trained to help others, and we simply do not like to say “no.”

Back in 1988, I moved to Asheville, N.C., to work for a well-established law firm with a great presence in the community. I was not only encouraged, but expected, to be involved in the communities of which I was a part: professional, church and civic. I was also expected, in a very short time, to build my own individual practice in the local professional community. For several years, “yes” seemed to work well. At a point in the mid-’90s, however, I began to realize that my disorganized and undisciplined willingness to “volunteer” was affecting my billable productivity, general effectiveness as a leader and member of all of the communities of which I was a part (including my family life) and personal happiness. Not only was I wearing myself out, but I realized there really was no effective pattern or plan to the things I was saying “yes” to.


A lot of bad things happen when you lack the ability to say “no” at the appropriate times: personal dissatisfaction as you try to fit too much activity into too little time, unhappy members of your firm as living up to commitments becomes more difficult, and aggravated clients (or whomever else you have made promises to). Saying “yes” to too many perceived opportunities truly is counterproductive, making it much more difficult to accomplish personal success.


Saying “no” at the right times is a skill. It is not something that comes naturally. Most of us are not lazy and are very interested in making significant contributions for the betterment of others. If you tend to have the common struggle of an inability to say “no” to others, consider that being able to say “no”:

  • Helps you to be really good at what you do say “yes” to. If you limit saying “yes” to those things for which you have true passion, as well as activities that make use of your natural strengths, talents and gifts, you will have greater energy for the roles you agree to take on. The more energy you expend on those things that you truly want to be engaged and committed to, the more you will be productive, innovative and successful in those things.
  • Facilitates your ability to live up to the commitments that you make to others. One of the characteristics of a “finite” world is that each of us only has so much time. Those with the problem of an inability to say “no” logically have less time, on average, to devote to a greater number of activities. Though some of us believe that we are efficient with our time—that is, that we are great at “time management”—the reality is that you really do have to spend time on your commitments in order to achieve maximum success. Some say that they achieve success spending “quality” time versus quantity of time. Though some of us maximize limited time better than others, you will have a greater likelihood of success in your commitments if you are able to devote more time to fewer endeavors.
  • Enables you to say “yes” to those “best” opportunities that arise. Every one of us, at some point, regardless of our problem of not being able to say “no,” will convey “no” to others. In many cases we do this by sending signals that we are overcommitted or overstretched. You may not verbally say “no,” but due to these signals, you may not be asked. Having the ability to say “no” will allow you to say “yes” to opportunities—and also enable you to seek out these types of important activities as well.
  • Allows you to live a healthier and more satisfactory life. Having the ability and discipline to say “no” when that is the proper response, and thereby having the freedom to say “yes” to those opportunities within your strengths, passions, gifts and talents is a quality-of-life skill. I am not a medical health professional or therapist, but it is logical that those who have this skill will have greater satisfaction, and more time to live a healthy, satisfied life.


Given that saying “no” at appropriate times is a critical need, but understanding that many of us inappropriately give in to the temptation to say “yes” much too often, consider asking yourself the following questions when perceived opportunities come along.

If I say “yes,” will I be doing so for the right reasons or motives? Many of us are afraid to say “no.” We are afraid that doing so will cause us to miss an opportunity, or perhaps that it will be offered to someone else. We also may be afraid that saying “no” will cause others to not come back to you and ask you again when another opportunity for service comes along. The answer to this type of thinking is to have a personal development plan for yourself. In the area of responding to service opportunities (billable or nonbillable), the plan should include a detailed understanding of those areas of service or work that are critical to your future. You should have a very clear idea of what narrow scope of service is always “yes.” Second, you should have an understanding that “no” does not mean to simply say “no.” Those who present opportunities are usually the same folks who will have future opportunities to present, or have influence over those who do. Saying “no” should always include an explanation of why you are doing so, including a description of the strengths, passion, talents and gifts that you still seek opportunities to fully express.

How will saying “yes” affect my obligations to others? Though you should not be afraid of missing out on future opportunities by saying “no,” you should be afraid of missing future opportunities by saying “yes” and stretching yourself so thin that you cannot follow through on existing commitments. Those whom you have made commitments to in the past will either be your biggest future cheerleaders or naysayers. The determination of which it is will most likely be based on how well you have lived up to the obligations you have made to them in the past.

Saying “no” and “yes” at the appropriate times is an important management skill each practicing lawyer needs, applied to both billable and nonbillable opportunities. This skill can only be perfected in association with commitment to a well-developed personal professional development plan. Mastering this skill will lead to greater success and satisfaction in your professional and personal life.



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