How to Say “No” to a Partner


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

Author Anne Lamott says, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” When you’re a junior associate facing a demanding partner in a law firm, however, it seems more like the path to a death sentence. How can you “be a team player,” yet protect your vital interests in your own health and well-being? Do you dare say “no” during an economic recession, when you see other lawyers getting laid off? Here are five strategies for taking care of your needs while still taking care of business.

1. Be proactive.

Minimize the number of occasions when you need to be reactive or negative. Do you work with a partner who has a pattern of dumping a new project on your desk on Friday at 3:00 p.m. with a Monday morning deadline? Try dropping by his office earlier in the week to discuss what may be coming up.

You might say, “I have an important commitment this weekend, so I want to make sure I cover all the bases for you by Friday. (Note: It’s important to insert that “for you.” It reassures him that you have his interests in mind.”) Are there any projects that you could find the need to hand off to me later? If so, I would like to know about them now, so that I don’t have to leave you in the lurch.” That last part forewarns him that you intend to stand firm, yet you care about what he cares about…him.

2. Don’t over-disclose.

You may get some inquiries about the nature of your obligation. If your commitment involves giving yourself some much needed rest and rejuvenation time, or if he has a tendency to judge that his work is more important than your son’s fourth birthday, just tell him “It’s personal.” He can’t quibble with the unknown.

When you provide excuses or too much justification for your decision, you imply that you are unsure of its validity or your worthiness. You also give the partner an opportunity to try to “solve your problem” so that you can log more hours for him. He may judge that you aren’t serious about your career if your choices don’t align with his value system, even if there isn’t really an emergency on his part. Many baby boomers felt they had no choice but to pay their dues, even when it required neglecting their families. They will not respect you if you tell them you are putting a t-ball game before the client’s needs.

3. Hold your boundary diplomatically.

Most partners will back off when you say something is personal. Some, however, may inquire about it out of concern for you. A few of the terminally insensitive types may muscle forward in hopes that they can avoid inconveniencing themselves by planning ahead. When someone tries to weasel more information out of you, it can be very effective to put a non-threatening expression on your face, look them in the eye, and say nothing, or move on to the next topic. If you feel compelled to respond, try repeating, “It’s personal,” or say, “I’d rather not talk about it.” Reassure him that you want to make sure the client’s needs get served, so you would like to go over the list of projects and priorities while there is time to address them.

4. Head off negative assumptions.

Whenever you have something touchy to say, you will be dealing with assumptions about your intentions and your motives. Research shows that when people dislike or disagree with someone’s behavior, they tend to assign negative motives and negative character traits to the actor. (“He’s trying to avoid work. He’s not a team player.”) When they behave similarly, however, they tend to see the behavior as motivated by the particular circumstances, rather than by their own character. (“I’m worn out and overloaded, and I just can’t fit another thing on my plate.”) The tendency to misjudge another’s intentions is so pervasive that psychologists give it a name: Fundamental Attribution Error.

To escape the impact of Fundamental Attribution Error, design your response to counter or mitigate any negative assumptions you think they could have. Also reveal your positive intentions or motives. Let them know that you share their goals and concerns. For example, you might say, “It’s important to me to be a team player. It is also important to do a good job and keep the commitments I have already made. If I take on one more assignment right now, something will fall through the cracks. Would you rather get someone else to work on it or negotiate an extension with the client?” To the boss who makes last minute demands, you might say, “As you know, I have tackled three Friday afternoon rush assignments in the past six weeks. It’s not that I’m not committed or that I’m unwilling to put in the hours. I want to make sure we impress our clients. This time, however, I have an obligation I can’t push aside. Would you rather find someone else, or would you like me to come in early on Monday to get started on it?”

5. Offer an alternate solution.

Notice that in the previous paragraph each example included an alternative option. Usually a partner just wants to get the assignment off her desk and on to the desk of someone else who is competent to handle it. If you know of another associate who might be able to take it on, consider negotiating with that associate. You could agree to trade this rush for a different last minute assignment “to be named later.” (You might even consider bailing someone else out first, when it is convenient for you, so that you can call in that debt when you need to.) Then you can present the partner with a solution at the same time that you decline the assignment. You will be demonstrating that you are responsible and resourceful, and that the partner can still count on you to take care of her interests.

In the competitive law firm environment, it’s important to maintain your reputation as someone who can be counted on. By the same token, you must safeguard your emotional and physical health to survive the long haul. You’ll need superior communication skills to pull it all off. Practice these five strategies in less threatening situations outside the office. Then when a sticky situation comes up at work, you’ll be able to handle it with poise.

Reprinted with permission from the February 27, 2009 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2009 Incisive Media US Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Debra L. Bruce is President of Lawyer-Coach LLC (www.lawyer-coach.com), a law practice management coaching and training firm. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming the first Texas lawyer credentialed by the International Coach Federation (ICF). She is Vice Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas and a past leader of Houston Coaches Inc., the Houston chapter of ICF.

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