When It’s OK (And How) To Say “No” To Your Boss

Remember Thanksgiving dinner? Your friends and family asked you to host, even though you worked a 60-hour week.

Do you recall how the following week your neighbor asked you to dog-sit while they were out of town, and the only thing their Golden Retriever ever retrieved was your shredded morning newspaper?

Finally, over the December holidays, you were asked to be a guest lecturer at your son’s school, to bake cookies for its fundraiser, and (in your spare time) to drive the school bus for a field trip to a meteor crater. Remember how–after all this–last week you politely declined your neighbor’s invitation to the second of their three holiday parties, and the world did not, in fact, end?

Sometimes, saying “no” is the right course of action. Unsurprisingly, saying “no” will not topple your house of cards.In the law firm, to spare your sanity and continue a high level of productivity, occasionally you must tell a partner “no”. But, here’s how to do it.

1. Have a valid reason to say “no”

Although white lies and fake excuses may get you out of drinking your aunt’s eggnog, it’s unacceptable in the workplace. If you must say no to an assignment given by a law partner, have a valid reason why.

For example, provide detail regarding the number of hours of work you’ve already earmarked for Senior Partner A’s project. If that’s not good enough, have a more senior attorney step in on your behalf to defend your hefty caseload.

Always use the “yes, but let me get back to you” formula.

So, “yes, I’d love to help you on this task, but I don’t know if I will be able to get to it until next week due to my involvement in Case X.” Then, follow up with a succinct e-mail that politely declines the project. More than likely the partner won’t think twice about your refusal, and just choose another lawyer on his or her short list.

2. Be firm

When declining a project, be firm in your answer. If you waffle about whether or not you have the time, the assigning attorney will think you’re unable to manage your casework.Being firm will also earn you more respect. It’s difficult to tell a law partner “no”.

So when you do, the partner will be less likely to abuse your willingness to take on projects (and work until 4am on holidays). They will respect your honesty and professionalism if you are polite, but firm.

By taking the assignment and overloading your schedule, most likely, all of your cases, the client, and your image at the firm will suffer.Being a pushover will not lead to a promotion.

3. Become a valuable resource, nonetheless

Even if you, personally, cannot handle a new assignment, perhaps your cube neighbor can. If you know of an associate who is willing to and available for work, tell the assigning attorney.

Or, if you know of a tool or online resource that can help facilitate the work at hand, write a quick note with the information. Pass it along to the attorney who eventually takes the case.

Although you may not be able to complete the task, there’s no reason why you can’t contribute.The unsolicited offer of help will show firm partners that you’re still a team player, as well as a valuable asset to the firm–even if you must, on occasion, say “no”.



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