The Art of Saying No

After all that everyone has been through in the last year, and just as the world is beginning to open up, we see so much struggle in Big Law. Perhaps now more than ever before. The pressures are coming from multiple directions. 

One, there is an extraordinary demand for billable work – particularly in corporate practices. Client demands on many women lawyers are simply overwhelming right now. Two, many firms are instituting ambitious diversity programs that require substantial non-billable time commitments from women lawyers and lawyers of color. Finally, as COVID-related restrictions lessen, life’s demands are increasing exponentially for many women lawyers. All of this is happening on top of the fact that many women lawyers have not had a break since the pandemic began, and so they feel burned-out to begin with. 

Over the last 14 months, we have talked a lot about how to navigate through this difficult period with productivity tips, resilience practices and a heavy dose of self-compassion. At this point, perhaps the most important skill to master is when and how to say NO.

Saying yes is a superpower for most of our alumnae. In fact, for many, their very identity is based on being the person who says YES and then consistently follows through and does a great a job. However, at a certain point, this superpower becomes a saboteur. When your health and well-being are being severely impacted by your work and life demands, this is an indication that saying YES to everything is no longer serving you. If this sounds familiar, perhaps you need to build the skill of saying something other than YES.  

This month, we want to offer you some very specific ways to avoid saying YES:


“I can’t do it by XYZ but I can do it by ABC. Does that work for you? 

Commit to Commit

“Sounds good. Before I commit, I need to check a few things. May I call you back by XYZ?”

Offer a Solution 

“My schedule will not allow me to take that on (speech, leadership role, project), but I think [insert colleague’s name here] has some time and would be great.”

Ask for Help and Offer a Solution

“I think we need another associate on this matter. Is XYZ available?”


“While I’d like to do that, I have several hard deadlines and do not have the bandwidth.” Or “Thank you so much for thinking of me. I have a commitment that I cannot change on that day. I’d love to do it another time.”

When you have to decline, be short and specific. Give details, but not too many. Do not over explain. We at WLF are fans of transparency, but too much detail takes away from your authority. 

Pay particular attention to your tone. Do not equivocate or sound defensive (or aggressive). If it is appropriate, you can suggest that the requestor speak to a more senior lawyer with whom you work, to ask that senior lawyer for help prioritizing your workload. 

Any time you try a new move, it might feel scary and awkward. Start small. Notice that the world doesn’t fall apart. Like any skill, it gets stronger with practice.

Are you an alum of the Women’s Leadership Forum? We’d love to keep in touch with you! Request to join us in our private Facebook group, or connect with Susan on LinkedIN and send me a note that you’d like to be part of our exclusive LinkedIn group. Also follow us on Instagram for frequent reminders of WLF content!