Following is a piece about the importance of learning to say No from time to time in our busy lives. I am pleased that it was published by the NC State Bar in the North Carolina State Bar Journal (Fall 2019), which is sent to all the lawyers in our state.
While the piece is geared towards lawyers, its central theme—guard your finite time carefully and be disciplined to say No from time to time (or at least “not now”)—applies to all of us.
I hope you find this piece helpful. Here is the published piece is a link to the North Carolina State Bar Journal. My article begins on Page 23.
The Fine Art of Learning to Say No
What part of no don’t you understand? go the words to a country song that was popular a number of years ago.
The difficulty with the “no” word is not the understanding of it. The difficulty is in the saying of it.
The answer to the question is as important today as it was many years ago when I took a leap and started my own firm as a young lawyer. The lesson is one I learned the hard way.
I had finally reached the point in my career that I had a little rainy day money in the bank. I had received a couple of decent fees toward the end of the year, and I was feeling better about my progress, limited though it was, and my growing financial stability.
A couple came in with a matter that had the markings of a good case. It also had some weaknesses, which I saw clearly enough, or so I thought. But my competitive ego told me I could overcome them. I was, after all, on a little bit of a roll in my practice. (A totally unrelated fact, but a development which made me less cautious.) And the couple talked up my (purported) skills pretty well. Unfortunately, I believed them.
The weaknesses in the case, which were every bit the weaknesses I had seen initially, were exacerbated by other factors, too: the stubbornness of the clients (standing on the high ground of principle, but mostly on my contingent fee nickel, of course), the aggressiveness of the other lawyer, and the backpedaling of a key witness.
If you get easily frustrated with uncooperative clients, aggressive opposing counsel, and unpredictable witnesses, you better get out of the law business. It is an unusual case that does not have one or all of these issues in play, as all lawyers who try cases know.
I could have dealt with all of that. What I could not deal with was the recurring recognition that I saw most of this coming, and I chose to proceed anyway. If I had just said no, as my instincts were trying to tell me, I could have avoided all of this.
And as important as all of that was, the case took up an inordinate amount of time. As a young lawyer building a new enterprise, time was what I did not have. What I could have done with that time to advance more important efforts would have been very helpful to my practice.
But of course, I squandered all of that because I chose not to say no.
My pride and vanity clouded my judgment, and I made a bad choice when I took that case. That pride and vanity carried me to a place well past the known facts and problems which I mostly saw coming at the time. And in the process, I handed over one of my most precious assets: my always too little time as a busy lawyer.
There are few absolutes in life, but this is one of them: we all have a finite amount of time each day. We cannot simply throw more on the already consuming pile of work and expect it all to work out.
It should come as no surprise that the largest category by far of complaints about lawyers to the State Bar is that lawyers do not always return phone calls in a timely manner, or at all. And professional insurance companies will tell you a large category of claims against lawyers could be avoided if lawyers did not get jammed on their time and make bad decisions which are hastily made because they run out of time before a legal deadline. Many of these matters could be avoided if lawyers were spending little or no time on matters on which maybe they ought to have said no in the first place.
The next time that stretch case comes in you know will consume time you don’t have, and there is a small chance of achieving any corresponding benefit, let it be the best case you NEVER took. The result will never get you listed in the Biggest Verdicts of the Year in Lawyers Weekly, but over time you will reap more benefit from the discipline.
The takeaway lesson is this: A busy lawyer simply has to guard his time carefully and make good choices about how to spend his time. Which means he cannot do everything. He cannot will his way past serious weaknesses in a case, and the disruption of the very time-consuming efforts to try to cure those weaknesses. Or time constraints in a worthwhile community project in which he is too busy to help. And in all the other inordinate consumers of his valuable time in between. The smart lawyer has to send some callers on their way.
“Learn to say no. It will be more valuable to you than reading Latin,” said Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
Most of us do not have much occasion to read Latin these days, so stick with Mr. Spurgeon’s central advice and learn to say no. This one discipline may be the most important one of all for the busy lawyer building a meaningful body of work in a career at the Bar.
I learned a lot from the case on which I should have said no, and I paid a high price for the instruction. Hopefully this story will save you some tuition.
Mike Wells is a senior partner with the Wells Law Firm in Winston-Salem. He served on the State Bar Ethics Committee from 1994-2000, and he was President of the North Carolina Bar Association from 2012-2013.