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Commentary: Associates need to know when — and how — to say no

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – If you are a new associate at a medium or large law firm, it is not uncommon to sacrifice time with your friends and family in favor of working with multiple superiors for extended hours into the evening or even on weekends to beat looming deadlines.

In addition to the challenges of learning new aspects of the law, managing your time, and trying to maintain your personal life, there is another formidable challenge to face, one that often becomes the most common source of stress among new associates: saying “no.”

Many fear the consequences of that simple act: the partner or senior associate thinking of you as less willing to help; having your reputation in the firm damaged; or being punished in some way (such as not being promoted or being left out of preferred projects).

While there may indeed be consequences to saying “no” outright, oftentimes the fear of the potential consequences prevents associates from saying “no” in any way, even when it’s the right thing to do.

The fact of the matter is that we constantly say “no” without even realizing it. Each time we say “yes” to something, we are saying “no” to the alternatives. If I say “yes” to eating pizza for dinner, I automatically have said “no” to eating sushi, assuming I don’t top my pizza pie with raw seafood.

Another important aspect to be aware of is the impact that saying “yes” to everything has on your work. No matter how efficient you think you are, multitasking is a myth, and you slow your productivity when you try to do two things at once. By taking on more work than you have time for, you sacrifice relaxation, sleep and the much-needed recharge you require when working long hours — not to mention that your mental functioning and processing speed diminish considerably when you’re tired or sleep-deprived.

Pulling “all-nighters” might sound impressive, but they are quite inefficient, as they promote increased errors, slower thinking and diminished memory. Yet despite knowing all these facts, many associates feel that the potential consequences of saying “no” are worse than the potential problems caused by working in a virtual zombie-like state.

As an associate, if you respond “yes” to being asked (or told) to take on a new, large piece of work that would demand your immediate time and attention, you’re saying “no” to the current work you have in front of you. If the work is coming from the same partner, ask that partner to give directives about which is the priority and which can wait until later. If the work is coming from different partners (or senior associates), it can feel as though you are between a rock and a hard place, as any decision you make will inevitably upset someone.

Enter diplomacy

So what to do? Enter diplomacy.

The key to using diplomacy is to have the person hearing your “no” feel that your relationship with him is as strong, if not stronger, after hearing the negative reply. Specifically, the goal is to have the partner or senior associate feel one of three things:

• The partner understands why you are saying “no,” even though he wants you to say “yes.”

• Upon hearing the specifics of your situation, the partner agrees with you saying “no” at this particular time.

• The “no” is actually the partner’s ultimate decision.

While the outcome cannot be guaranteed, the following sequential steps can help you practice effective diplomacy:

1) When an assignment is presented to you, immediately ask for more details and clarifying questions so you fully understand what is being asked of you (e.g., when is the deadline, how important is the project, what skills are required of this project, etc.).

2)Validate the importance of the project by showing that you understand why the work needs to be done.

3) Ask for time to consider the task before answering so that you can evaluate your availability. Ask your supervisor for guidance as to what other work can be postponed or to see if others in the firm can help out using skills with which they may be better equipped.

Useful phrases

Additionally, if the person presenting the work is the one responsible for supervising you, you can describe to that person your current workload and directly ask for help in prioritizing your work.

There are multiple ways of saying “no” without the “no” sounding like a rejection, opposition, disinterest or laziness. Useful phrases might include:

• “I can help out with that work once I finish up my current project, which will require all my time until its deadline Monday.”

• “I would like to take that on and get experience working on that project if it can wait until I finish the brief that is due tomorrow.”

• “I have three things that are due tomorrow; is there anyone else who can take one of those things off my plate so I can focus on taking this new project?”

By utilizing these types of responses, your “no” has the opportunity to be heard as a group decision. Others get a sense of your workload, and you demonstrate your ability to prioritize and evaluate your work (and what it takes to get it completed).

And even if you cannot help with a new project, the partner or senior associate feels like you have an interest in helping. Saying “I can help later” is another way of saying “I cannot help right now.” It all depends on how you phrase it.

There’s no avoiding it: To maintain a high level of performance, your personal relationships, and your very sanity, the substance of your response to your supervisors sometimes has to be an unequivocal “no.” But you’ll see what an impact a diplomatic style makes on their reactions.

Dr. Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts, where he provides clinical services. He also writes and presents on a variety of topics germane to the practice of law. He can be contacted at