Nearly all lawyers will be familiar with this situation: you’re struggling through your case-load, trying to keep everything moving forward and your billing figures looking healthy. You think you can just about stay afloat, maybe with a few late nights here, and some skipped lunches there. And then your boss comes along – with an armful of new cases, or an email full of extra work, all aimed at your desk. But what do you say to them?

I’d be willing to bet that most people would not be able to refuse the added work in this situation, and fewer still would be able to say ‘no’ in a confident and effective way.

So, for those unfortunate lawyers who, if faced with the above, would now be looking despairingly at their increased work-load – this blog is for you!

You are not alone

Recently, I have been delivering Zoom workshops on how to increase your self-confidence in setting boundaries at work.  These workshops focus on promoting a greater sense of well-being by setting and maintaining boundaries for your professional life.

From discussions with attendees at these workshops, it has become apparent to me that many lawyers are extremely reluctant to say ‘no’. Given how assertive lawyers are when it comes to the interests of their clients, it is curious that they find it so tough to refuse additional work pressure when it is in the interests of their own well-being to do so. Make no mistake, taking on too much work, can, and will, adversely affect a lawyer’s service to their clients. This can be due to overpromising and underdelivering or missing important details and so on.

This blog is concerned with how to overcome that all-too-natural aversion to saying ‘no’ to your boss. But before looking at some techniques to help you, it is worth looking at some of the reasons behind the problem.

Why is it so difficult for lawyers to say ‘no’ to extra work?

Part of the problem is that we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and have imaginary conversations in our head – which don’t go well. In the workshops, the lawyers mentioned some examples of these. They assumed that their manager:

  • Wouldn’t ask them again to take on more responsibilities and that they would therefore miss out on future opportunities.
  • Would judge them as not pulling their weight.
  • Would think of them as not being a team player, especially if other team members are over-busy. The lawyers also acknowledged having feelings of guilt at the idea of not helping out.

You may recognise some of these yourself, or you may have other reasons why saying ‘no’ is so difficult – such as associating over-work with commitment to the job. Further, feeling like you are shouldering huge responsibilities, and are therefore indispensable, can boost your sense of self-worth to never refusing extra work. But ever-growing work-loads can trap lawyers into a downward spiral of increasing mistakes and decreasing productivity.

The dangers of burnout

Just so we are clear, saying ‘yes’ too much has a long-term toll. It can lead to resentment towards your firm, reduced productivity from spreading yourself too thin and, rather than enhancing your reputation, can damage it as you are not top of your game. More worryingly, it can become a major source of burnout.

A recent LawCare survey  found that younger lawyers, those between 26 and 35, were most at risk of burnout so this is why I suggest you start with this boundary. Implementing positive habits to protect your well-being at the start of your career will serve you well and reduce the risk of burnout in the long run.

Self-care is so important. It allows you to show up for your clients and colleagues and to be at your professional best. The ability to say ‘no’ is part of that.

Where to start?

Every lawyer I have met likes to tell me how busy they are, and all of the attendees to my ‘Self-confidence on Setting Boundaries’ workshop mentioned how difficult they find it to take their lunch hour. This may seem a trivial place to start, but the very fact that all of them encountered this issue begs the question: why was it so difficult for them?

When explored with delegates, it emerged that this was not coming from their managers or the culture of their firm, just from the imaginary negative conversations (mentioned above) that say they would be judged for taking their breaks and possibly be seen as not committed. They also admitted that their boss did not even know they were missing lunch breaks, especially in remote working situations.

So if this sounds like you, why not begin setting boundaries by reclaiming your lunch break? If your boss doesn’t know you are missing lunch, then you need to tackle your negative assumptions. If you simply have too much work, that’s where the rest of this blog can help – in improving your ability to say ‘no’ to your boss.

Of course, if being expected to skip your lunch hour is part of the culture of your firm, then that is a different conversation.

Improving your ability to say ‘no’

The following tips and techniques can help you build the confidence to say ‘no’, and to do so in a powerful way.

  1. Set your boundaries. Your boundaries should value your time, help your well-being and turn you from being a ‘busy’ lawyer into one who can balance their time productively for themselves, their colleagues and their clients. As mentioned above, setting boundaries around your lunch-break is a good starting point. It is well researched that break times are important. My complimentary toolkit  contains an exercise which allows you to identify and write down your boundaries, thereby helping you to track and maintain them.
  1. Plan ahead. You can’t predict when you will be asked to do certain things, but you will be aware of how your office works and how performance is measured. Therefore, preparing key ‘no’ phrases in advance – which you can say confidently when asked to take on yet another matter, can help you to refuse. They enable you to avoid saying ‘yes’ because you don’t know what else to say. Again, an exercise in my complimentary toolkit can help you to formulate these phrases.
  1. Get to know your boss and how they work. For example, if you are skipping your lunch break – ask yourself ‘why’. Is this because your boss has told you to? Do they expect you to? Is every lawyer in the team/firm working through every lunch break? Finding out what your boss actually expects of you can help you to set meaningful boundaries on your work life.
  1. Keep your boss informed. Make them aware of your workload capacity and discuss the boundaries of the number of matters that are safe for you to handle. Managers are not mind readers and are often busy themselves. Keep the dialogue open and dispel the myth that if you start saying ‘no’ they will assume you can’t handle the work. Work with them to find the right solution in the ‘busy’ situation.
  1. Confidence is really important. When you lack confidence saying ‘no’ you may think that you need to support this with lots of reasons to convince the other person that you mean it. This comes across as unassertive and can undermine your position or suggest you can be persuaded. It is best to keep your responses short and not give reasons until asked. If pushed you can keep it simple with something like: ‘that just works better for me’. It will depend on the circumstances as to what would be appropriate to say. The toolkit can help you with some ideas in this respect.
  1. Don’t start with ‘sorry’ – especially if you are using it as an introduction to your excuse. Often this is used because people think it is polite, but it can sound weak and pre-warns your boss that you are trying to refuse. This often allows them to prepare their ‘arguments’ for when you finish.
  1. Avoid aggression, contempt, and other unhelpful tones. Angry or sarcastic retorts are not a way to win friends and influence people. Examples would be: ‘Are you kidding me?’ or ‘Do you know how much work I have got on?’ Sometimes an aggressive ‘no’ can include an attack on the person making the request: ‘You must be crazy’ or ‘I’m not dealing with something so unimportant’. Using unhelpful tones such as these are just likely to make your boss entrench their position, and ultimately make it more difficult for your refusal to succeed.
  1. Adopt the right body language. This should be confident, but not aggressive, and you should avoid anything which sends mixed messages or appears unassertive. For example, do NOT smile when saying ‘no’ as this conflicts with your position of refusal and comes across as uncertainty.
  1. Practise saying ‘no’ in other situations. This can help by making refusal come more naturally to you, especially if you find it difficult to say ‘no’ to anyone. Some ways you can practise include, saying ‘no’ to the telemarketer who disturbs your dinner; or even to your friend’s pets when they jump on you. You could make it a project to say ‘no’ to something every day!
  1. Give yourself credit when you succeed. Noticing and acknowledging your success in saying such a small, but important, word can help you to do it more frequently.
  1. Seek help. A common mistake is thinking you have to do this alone. This is not true. If you find yourself struggling, or you need feedback on your body language/phraseology, then you can ask family and friends help or engage a professional coach. For example, I have supported lawyers at all levels with this area and helped them with their self-confidence in general.

Taking things further

As mentioned, I have added a new section to my free toolkit with exercises and more techniques to help you develop good habits. In particular, I have included methods for saying ‘yes’ (when it is unavoidable) but doing so in ways which give you more control over your work/life boundaries.

Learning to say ‘no’ is just one aspect of setting boundaries on your professional life. In a previous blog, I wrote about how you can set boundaries in a number of different areas, and I’d recommend reading this if you would like to take more control over your work/life balance.

For more comprehensive help with setting boundaries, self-confidence, professional well-being, and other business skills, why not speak to me about workshops or coaching plans which may work for you? Feel free to contact me for a no-obligation chat about your requirements on 07921540039

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