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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I have been told that I should try not turn down work, but I have also been told not to take on too much work. I am not sure when I should say, “no.” Do you have any suggestions about when and how I should decline work?

A: You are in luck. Recently, in working with a prestigious firm on its new associate orientation, a secret and coveted text came into my possession. Written by Anonymous, the compendium is aptly named, The Little Book of No. More on that below. But first, some caveats.

Someone has to do the work. Remember that telling the client, “no” is not an option. Someone has to do the work. And the lawyers who give you work are your internal clients.

Generally, you need to identify a few lawyers who will give you regular work and will help you advance in your career. Do your best to handle anything those lawyers need – without fail. Try to block out some time in your day for emergencies, including urgent requests from key lawyers. This may also mean saying “no” to other lawyers.

If you tell lawyers you can’t help with their work, they may not offer again. If a restaurant can’t seat you, you go somewhere else, and you may not rush back. If a doctor can’t see you when you are sick, you may switch doctors. You get the point.

Overpromising causes problems. But overpromising also causes problems. In trying to be helpful, it can be easy to say “yes” too quickly. You may find that you have agreed to a project without understanding the time commitment – or without considering the rest of your workload. But if you take on too much, you may blow a deadline or sacrifice quality. That’s like an airline that sells you a ticket, overbooks, and then refuses to give you a seat (or worse).

As I note in Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks, you may disappoint senior lawyers if you decline work. But the temporary disappointment is far better than having to cut corners and getting a reputation for being sloppy.

Diplomacy will serve you well. This is where we get to The Little Book of No. Its powerful words have endured. Adapt them to your own situation, and they should help you decline work with grace. Just remember, if The Little Book of No came with instructions, they would read: “Use sparingly.”

  • I’ve given this a lot of thought, and unfortunately, I must decline. Would it be helpful if I try to find another associate at my level who has capacity?
  • I’m not in a position to help you on this particular deal, but I believe [Associate A] might have bandwidth and is interested in doing more of this kind of work.
  • I have enjoyed working with you in the past, and would love to help you out now, but my current workload is such that I just can’t do it. I expect to have some time in . . . .
  • I’m sorry, but if I take on any more right now, the quality of my work will suffer and I will not be able to meet my current commitments or your expectations.
  • Thanks for thinking of me for this project. I would love to jump in. However, based on my current and anticipated workload, I must decline.
  • I appreciate your asking me, and ordinarily I would be delighted to work with you. Unfortunately, in light of other commitments, I have to say no this time.
  • As you will remember, the first time we discussed my taking this on, I expressed concern about it. As it turns out, things have only gotten busier for me, so I am going to have to decline.
  • I would like to help, but I am not in a position to start work on your project for another two weeks. If that works, I will swing by then.
  • I am finishing up a large project in the next couple of days, and [Partner] has asked me to reserve time to work on another large project that is about to start. I would like to work with you, but I need to be sure it is okay with [Partner] and get a better idea about the time commitment.
  • My partner mentor wants me to focus on building my technical skills in the [xyz area], and the message in my last review was consistent with that. While your project sounds interesting, my undertaking it is not consistent with the guidance I have received.
  • Ordinarily, I would jump at the chance to work on this with you, but I just finished my second consecutive 275-hour month. I know of several associates at my level who are looking for this kind of experience and are also light on hours. May I suggest one of them?

And finally, one for entertainment purposes only:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I’m totally slammed,
So, I can’t work with you.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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