Stop saying yes, start saying no

After 16 years of practice, I refused to take a brief for the very first time.
Person at home looking out of the window

A last-minute case was returned to me from another set of chambers when I was seven months pregnant with my third child.

It was a serious and complex prosecution sexual abuse re-trial with multiple child complainants.

Papers more than two feet deep, the pink brief ribbon barely holding them together due to their sheer weight and volume, were couriered to my home address late after close of business.

The brief contained no indictment, no opening note, no case summary and there were several complainant DVDs to view.

My other children were two years and 17 months old respectively at the time. My husband worked away. I had to be ready for a clean start the next morning in a non-local court.

I said no.

Saying yes

How many times this month have you undertaken a task at work because you didn't want to rock the boat?

As a former criminal barrister with 19 years' experience, I've seen countless examples of lawyers saying yes to things to prove a point, not let others down, or fearing others' judgment:

  • the pupil barrister or trainee solicitor 'first in, last out', feeling that their tenancy or training contract relies upon their constant availability and visibility
  • the solicitor seeking promotion having more and more burdensome tasks demanded of them by the senior partner
  • the associate solicitor taking out-of-hours calls from the CEO, originally to facilitate global conference calls, but becoming the regular expectation
  • the criminal barrister taking on a last-minute return, far beneath their level of seniority or, as in my original example, the 'bag of rats' that seriously test usual standards of preparedness and professionalism

The fear of saying no

How easy do they, or you, find saying no?

I'm now a specialist corporate and executive coach and have delivered several coaching workshops on this topic. I see many of us struggle with asserting ourselves around saying no.

We take on far too much, spread ourselves too thinly and, as a consequence, end up doing lots of things badly rather than a few things well.

To what are you prepared to say yes?

I prefer to ask, to what am I prepared to say yes?

At the criminal bar, return briefs are common-place. Inevitably a degree of flexibility is required.

As a pupil or associate solicitor, you can expect a certain amount of "putting yourself out" to achieve tenancy or promotion.

It may be politic to crack on with certain things for a short period.

But over time, this will dilute our values and beliefs, making this approach unsustainable.

Confidence, communication and personal choice

If we look back at times in our professional lives when we've said yes to something to prove a point, being honest, wasn't this truly due to a lack of personal confidence?

An inability to effectively prioritise our own objectives over the expectations of the organisation within which we work?

Doesn't learning to say no really come down to improving our own ability to confidently assert ourselves through clear and effective communication?

I'm not suggesting don't be a team player. I'm advocating a move away from the misconception that saying no means we're not capable.

My experiences demonstrate the opposite.

A senior colleague, fuming at having been asked by the clerks to take a case far beneath her level of experience and call, ultimately refused. To have taken it on, she explained, would have affected her credibility and standing.

Only when I, like her, became clear about my own values and self-worth, and examined what was most important, did I first recognise the power to say no was within me.

The confidence to assert this power was as refreshing as it was liberating.

That was when I said no. No to the task. Yes to personal choice. And yes to a much more manageable and enjoyable work life.

My tips around saying no

  • Be clear and confident about your values and belief
  • Ask whose plan are you working to?
  • Be prepared to more readily communicate what it is you are prepared to do
  • Learn the art of saying no through practice, practice, practice!

Further reading

A great book recommendation on this challenging workplace topic is Geoff McKeown's Essentialism.

He gives eight simple and effective examples of saying no without using the actual word.


Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society. 

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