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Young associates work a lot. They're asked to do this, they're asked to do that -- and they feel like they need to say "yes" to everything in order to continue earning the boss' favor (that's the law firm partners, in this case).
But good relationship management involves establishing early on what each party expects from the other. This means learning the fine art of saying "no." By letting the partners know early on in the relationship that you'll push back if you have a really good reason, you let them know that you're not a pushover and, while you'll gladly take on additional work if you can, you'll be assertive about when you can't anymore.
So in honor of National Boss' Day (October 16), here's a bit of advice on the fine art of learning to say "no" to a partner or senior associate:
For one thing, partners don't know how much work you have to do already. They may think they're asking you to take on a relatively small task, but it may be too much with your current workload. Temporarily appeasing the boss by saying you'll do this new task does just that -- it temporarily makes the boss happy. Cut to a few days later when you don't have time to work on the project and either do a shoddy job of it (and your other assignments) or ultimately have to admit that you can't complete it.
Law firms are in the business of averting risk, both for their clients and themselves. If you can't complete a job, the partner would rather know before all that time gets wasted so it can be assigned to someone else.
Saying "no" also establishes the expectation that you're not a go-to guy to have things dumped on you, especially at the last minute. Partners and senior associates, if they think of you in this way, might build your go-to-guyness into their business process, using you as a buffer.
Because people are expected to be agreeable, you might think that saying "no" means you're being disagreeable. That's not really the case; you're just saying you can't do what's being asked of you.
There are a lot of methods out there for saying "no" in a constructive way that doesn't make you sound obstinate. There's the sandwich method (put a "no" between two "yes"es); the pre-emptive no (letting your boss know you're busy before you think he or she is going to ask you to do something else); and the "ease into it" no (where you say you'll get back to the boss after checking your schedule). All of these methods -- and the others out there -- try to mitigate the social stigma of saying no. You can also make it a "no, but," in which you offer alternatives. Bosses love alternatives.
Don't feel like you're being a bad employee by not "taking one for the team," or whatever sports cliché you want to use. As long as you're meeting the B-word (billables) and the D-word (deliverables) and the client is happy, you're doing the right thing. And remember: It's about quality, not quantity. Saying "I could always do more" is technically true, but the relevant question is, can you do better? Delivering more, crappier deliverables doesn't do anyone any good.
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