I have a little sign on my desk that says, “You can do anything, but not everything.” My friend Davina gave it to me as a reminder that I (and I quote), “can’t shove 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag.”
She’s right. I have a problem saying the “N” word (for the record, that word would be “No”).
In the past five years, I have helped start no fewer than five businesses in which I was a principal, including a couple of non-profits. I have also been recruited onto various boards of directors, tapped to chair events for other organizations, and asked to volunteer on different projects.
I over-commit. I get wrapped up in the excitement of an idea and run with it. I look into the eyes of someone who needs help and I find myself saying, “Yes.”
Here’s the thing: I’m not the only person who can help. If I say no, they’ll move on to ask the next person. So what is it about being asked that makes me want to say yes when I shouldn’t? Is it ego? Empathy? Some weird desire to never sleep? An overdeveloped sense of community purpose? I think (for me) it boils down to not wanting to disappoint the person asking.
I know it’s the same for most lawyers. We are in demand, so long as it’s for free. In the non-profit world, every Board of Directors needs at least one lawyer. And there are always clients, acquaintances, friends, and family looking for our help.
Learning to say no has its rewards. You get to focus on your personal and professional growth. You get to be a better lawyer. You get more time to work on the projects that really matter to you. You also say no to projects that would simply be a distraction or a time suck. Saying no is freeing.
One thing to remember is that when you take on more work than you can handle, you are in line for a breach of the Rules of Professional Conduct. When you say yes to that pro bono client, that passion project, or that friend of the family who just wants to pick your brain, you are taking on legal and ethical responsibility for their matter. You – intentionally or unintentionally – make them your client.
When you say yes to answering a few questions for that friend of the family who “just wants to pick your brain,” you not only give up valuable time to someone who is never going to actually hire you, you are taking on legal and ethical responsibility for their matter. You unintentionally make them your client. Are they even in your jurisdiction? Maybe. Did you perform a conflict check? Probably not. Did you let them know that you were NOT forming an attorney-client relationship? Probably not. Did you even research your answer? Also no. You now owe them duties of diligence, competence, care, and confidentiality. Oops.
When you say yes to another pro bono matter, you are committing your law firm’s resources, your time, and creating another non-paying client, although this time intentionally. You owe w pro bono client the same duties of diligence, competence, care, and confidentiality that you owe to every other client. Do you really have the bandwidth to do that?
When you indulge in my favorite distraction – starting up yet another business besides your law firm – you again create another non-paying client and assume all of the duties owed to that client. In addition, you will owe a fiduciary duty to your business partners, and you may create an instant conflict of interest by being both legal counsel to the business and one of the business owners. Think twice before you take on all of that. Is the business opportunity so great that it’s worth it? If you do decide to take on a side business, be smart about getting written waivers of conflict, an engagement agreement, a shareholders agreement or operating agreement, and other contracts. We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to side projects.
The same holds true for non-profit appointments. Be wary of the organization wanting to put you on the board as well as obtaining free legal advice. It can create serious conflicts of interest that may be in violation of the organization’s bylaws. Make sure you have no conflicts of interest before taking on a board appointment, and remember that you owe the board a fiduciary duty whether or not you also take on the role of legal counsel.
Better still, say no. Tell your mom’s bridge partner or that nice man from church that you can’t get into a discussion of their legal problem without first running a conflict check, so why don’t they make an appointment. Refer out that guy you haven’t heard from since high school who just wants a few minutes of your time. Tell your buddy that, although you think his business idea sounds great, your best role is as his attorney, not his partner. Express your gratitude for the board offer but politely decline. Say no, thak you, to that fourth case from Legal Aid.
As hard as it is, I’m learning to say no. I promise that you can learn it too.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.