How to say no but keep the opportunities flowing

Learn the art of saying no without burning bridges or stemming the flow of instructions


Recently, an ex-chambers colleague remarked that he enjoyed going to court for a break. I asked what he meant. He explained the only way to silence what he felt were the incessant demands of clerks/instructing solicitors trying to get hold of him to prepare cases, file skeletons, complete written submissions etc, was to be doing a jury trial where he was completely immersed in the task in hand. There he found respite from the endless noise and digital distraction elsewhere.

How many of us can relate to that? The dread as another email notification pops up on our phone before we know exactly what it is we are being asked to deal with. The overwhelm as the little red circle fills with ever increasing numbers of tasks pinging into our inboxes.

There are a number of solutions to assist with the challenge of digital distraction which I’ll deal with later. But challenge, as I see it, comes at the preventative rather than curative stage. How do we say no in the first place to reduce the build-up of tasks, and yet convey a message to those who instruct us, both in solicitors’ firms and the clerks’ room, that we are very much ‘open for business’ and receptive to new instructions?

Traditional culture at the Bar has been ‘that’s just the way it is.’ It’s ingrained in us. The expectation that we go above and beyond, in terms of out of hours preparation, covering cases at short notice when preparation time is disproportionate to fees received, even covering cases without legal aid for no fee at all. Many argue the criminal justice system would collapse without this degree of goodwill.

Additionally, there is self-imposed pressure. The feeling that to say no is to let others down, to reveal we are not a team player, or is a matter upon which we will be judged as weak or incapable.

We’ve all done it. As a pupil looking for that all important tenancy, we are the ‘say yes to anything and everything’ person. As a junior tenant, perhaps with aspirations for silk or the Bench, we take on a case well beyond our own levels of experience to demonstrate our capabilities, even though it takes us from comfort zone to an area of major stretch. As a member of chambers, asked to cover the ‘bag of rats’ return that no one else wants to touch, we take it on for fear that to do otherwise, we will be overlooked by clerks in future, preferring to reward with further briefs those who are more amenable to helping out.

The cost of saying yes to everything

But at what cost? The obvious consequence of saying yes to everything, without filter or discernment, is that we end up doing lots of things badly, rather than a few things well. With increasing awareness around wellness, particularly after the Bar Council Wellbeing at the Bar initiative, the ability to give a firm but polite no is becoming an increasingly essential skill, to learn and deploy, for a happy, sustainable life at the Bar.

In the ‘Handling Stress’ section of www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk, Mr Justice Henry Carr suggests: ‘Give yourself sufficient time to prepare each case, even if that means turning work down. It will make your performance much better and the working day shorter.’ The advantages to so doing are obvious: improved work performance and an increased sense of life balance. When work performance improves, so does reputation. This in term will have the consequent effect of enhancing briefing quality and frequency.

How to say no without hindering future opportunity

That said, some struggle with using the actual word ‘no’. It is worth considering whether couching it, and using alternative words, reduces the power and sense of what we are trying to communicate. If we recognise and accept that there may be occasions when saying no is not just important but imperative, in practical terms how can we say no and still keep the opportunities flowing?

The direct no

On occasion, only the actual word ‘no’ will do. In this instance, it goes without saying that to be firm but polite will be most effective. A defensive or rude ‘no’ does little to curry favour and preserve ongoing relations.

The indirect no

There are also countless other ways to say no which need not offend nor cut off opportunity. Here are my suggestions:

Delivery

If we pause before delivering a no, the person making the request will realise that it is a considered no, and not necessarily a decision that we have come to easily. More so, if we ask for some time to consider our response, we communicate that we are deliberating and not coming to a snap refusal.

"The obvious consequence of saying yes to everything, without filter or discernment is that we end up doing lots of things badly, rather than a few things well..."

Consider using humour to say no. By laughing off a request, any sense of awkwardness on our behalf or the other person can be dissipated. Having this conversation face to face, where we can use facial expressions to enhance the message, will be more effective than email where any sense of deliberation, disappointment or humour can be difficult to convey or detect.

Language

We can say words to the effect ‘it’s a no for now’. This allows all parties keep the requests coming, if not now, at a future, and not far distant, point.

Alternatively, deliver a helpful no, and assist the other person find an alternative solution. Perhaps refer the request on to clerks to find someone else to deal with it, or suggest when you are next available, whether for that or another piece of work.

Boundaries

By setting automatic out-of-office email notifications during the day, not just on holiday, we set our own boundaries. We communicate a ‘not right now’ message, and still allow for the conversation to continue at a point more convenient to ourselves. If an unreasonable request is made, let’s say by clerks, answering with ‘Yes, but that will mean I don’t prepare X or Y’ will have the same effect as communicating an outright no, without sounding quite as unhelpful or difficult. An added bonus is it bringing into their consciousness the reasonableness (or otherwise) of the initial request.

Saying no to the demands of digital distraction

In respect of ongoing tasks, where there is a need to quieten the noise, regain focus and reduce overwhelm, here are my suggestions on how to avoid digital distraction:

  • Have set times for checking and responding to emails/calls such as 8.30am, 1pm and 4.30pm.
  • As mentioned above, don’t confine the use of automatic out-of-office email responses for holidays. Use them for set times during the day so that senders know you are engaged elsewhere and unavailable to provide an immediate response. You can incorporate your allocated time blocks for responding into this as well, to manage expectation.
  • Don’t check work emails when you are not working.
  • Activate airplane mode for an extreme form of full immersion and focus on case preparation.
  • De-activate social media apps to make access and distraction more difficult.
  • Communicate clearly with clerks/chambers about the boundaries and the acceptability (or otherwise) of calls/other interruptions whilst away on holiday.
  • Keep reasonable working hours.

 

Nikki Alderson is a former criminal barrister. She is now a corporate and executive coach supporting chambers and law firms to attract and retain female talent within the legal profession and empowering female lawyers to achieve career ambitions whilst creating congruent lives (www.nikkialdersoncoaching.com).

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Nikki Alderson

Nikki Alderson is a former criminal barrister. She is now a corporate and executive coach supporting chambers and law firms to attract and retain female talent within the legal profession and empowering female lawyers to achieve career ambitions whilst creating congruent lives (www.nikkialdersoncoaching.com).