Improving time management for lawyers is an important but underdeveloped skill. It’s true, lawyers are busy. However, they tend to take on more work than they can realistically handle. This is especially true when it comes to their colleagues. You never want to disappoint your colleagues so, when they ask for help, you do your best to support them. In some instances, helping others can be detrimental to our own work.
Learning to politely relay that you’re overwhelmed with your own tasks and don’t have the bandwidth to accept more work, in other words, how to say “no” is something professionals struggle to do with any reasonable amount of confidence. They’re concerned about the consequences of their choice. When the topic comes up, many attorneys are filled with fear and dread.
If you’re struggling to manage your time due to overwhelming expectations from your colleagues, these 3 strategies will help you express your workload without leaving your colleagues out to dry.
Why do we struggle with saying no?
Psychologist Kurt Lewin found that our cultures can be broken down into two broad categories – peach or coconut. These fruits are used to describe people and cultures in the world. This symbolism shows us our differences, ones that exist at a deep and fundamental level.
“Peach people are soft on the outside but have a hard stone that protects their inner being. Coconuts have tougher exteriors, but get past that, and they’re sweet inside. Americans, according to stereotype, are peaches; the French, like the Russians and Germans, are coconuts.” Peach is synonymous with the personality trait of agreeableness.
On the off-hand, coconuts are perceived as more unpleasant. They can be difficult and disagreeable. They’re willing to tell the truth, but many times it’s done in a way that’s cold, unkind, or cruel. It’s one of the more unpalatable parts of dealing with someone from a coconut culture. These behaviors are also common in those who are disagreeable.
This theory comes down to personality and how we express ourselves. You can likely think of a few colleagues at your law firm who don’t always have the best presentation but they mean well. You’re less likely to take their directness as offensive because you know them, but it may not have always been that way. You may have taken this presentation as negative previously.
The key when presenting any perceived negative information or a no, is to balance directness with construction. It’s always important to remember the saying, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
How to say no effectively
Mitigating personalities and determining how to deliver information to different people can be exhausting. So, it’s best to keep it neutral and stick to a few strategies that will benefit both parties. Below, are a few common scenarios and strategies to resolve them.
Strategy #1: Confirm the ask completely
“Can you help me with a consult? I’ve got a problem with…”
Start by asking questions.
You: “I’m in the middle of finishing a contract that’s due today. Are you asking for help with something that has to be done today?”
Asking questions is the one thing many attorneys forget to do. But asking questions gives you the tools you need to protect your boundaries. Once you have this information you can assist them by:
- Forwarding their request to another colleague with similar experience
- Point them to new, different or specialized resources
- Schedule a time to help, once you’ve finished your work
When colleagues make a request, make it a habit to ask questions. A complete understanding of their request gives you the ammunition you need to find the appropriate No/redirect.
Strategy #2: Confirm the terms and conditions
When colleagues make a request, they’re typically concerned with their side of things. It’s natural and understandable, but their request comes with consequences. For example:
- I’m supposed to be getting X done. Did you want me to drop Y and focus on Z?
- I can help you if I have X, Y and Z by noon tomorrow. Can you get it to me by then?
- I’ll give this a shot. X could be a major barrier, but I’d like to try and work around it.
- Would you give me two days to figure this out? There’s a lot to unpack here.
- I’m willing to help you with X. Would you be willing to take over Y for me instead?
- I can’t help with X, but I know three people who can. Give me a day to reach out to them.
You’ve shown colleagues you’re willing to try and are open to helping them but may risk meeting deadlines of your own that could impact the team as a whole.
Saying no is important to improving time management for lawyers
How you say no matters and it’s something most professionals struggle to do. You’re concerned about the ramifications of saying no and letting others down. As we’ve seen, improving time management for lawyers by saying no doesn’t have to hurt the relationship between colleagues. It’s about having the right approach, asking questions, and laying out all of the details. More likely than not, your colleague will appreciate the honesty and offering alternate solutions.