“What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” sings the country song that was popular a number of years ago.
The difficulty with the “no” word is not the understanding of it. The difficulty is in the saying of it.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way a couple of years after I had started my own law practice.
I had finally reached the point in my career that I had a little rainy-day money in the bank. I had received a couple of decent fees toward the end of the year, and I was feeling better about my progress, limited though it was, and my growing financial stability.
A couple came in with a matter that had the markings of a good case. It also had some weaknesses, which I saw clearly enough, or so I thought.
My competitive ego told me I could overcome those weaknesses, but I gave no careful thought about the considerable time commitment it would take to do so. I was, after all, on a little bit of a roll in my practice. (A totally unrelated fact, but a development which made me less cautious.) And the couple talked up my (purported) skills pretty good. Unfortunately, I believed them.
The weaknesses in the case, which were every bit the weaknesses I had seen initially, were exacerbated by other factors, too: the stubbornness of the clients (standing on the high ground of principle, but mostly on my contingent-fee nickel), the aggressiveness of the other lawyer and the backpedaling of a key witness.
If you get easily frustrated with uncooperative clients, aggressive opposing counsel and unpredictable witnesses, you better get out of the law business. It is an unusual case that does not have one or all of these issues in play, as all lawyers who try cases know.
I could have dealt with all of that. What I could not deal with was the recurring recognition that I saw most of this coming, and I chose to proceed anyway. If I had just said no, as my instincts were trying to tell me, I could have avoided all of this.
And as important as all of that was, the case took up an inordinate amount of time, which I would have seen coming, too, if I had taken the time to think it through.
As a young lawyer building a new enterprise, time was what I did not have. What I could have done with that time to advance more important efforts would have been very helpful to my practice.
But of course, I squandered all of that because I chose not to say no.
My pride and vanity clouded my judgment, and I made a bad choice when I took that case. That pride and vanity carried me to a place well past the known facts and problems which I mostly saw coming at the time. And in the process, I handed over one of my most precious assets: my always too little time as a busy lawyer.
There are few absolutes in life, but this is one of them: we all have a finite amount of time each day. We cannot simply throw more on the already consuming pile of work and expect it all to work out.
The next time that stretch case comes in you know will consume time you don’t have, and there is a small chance of achieving any corresponding benefit, let it be the best case you never took. The result will never get you listed in the Biggest Verdicts of the Year in Lawyers Weekly, but over time you will reap more benefit from the discipline.
What I have learned about life on the way to the courthouse is this: Guard your time carefully. A busy lawyer simply has to make good choices about how to spend his time. Which means he cannot do everything.
He cannot will his way past serious weaknesses in a case and the disruption of the very time-consuming efforts to cure those weaknesses. Or time constraints in a worthwhile community project in which he is too busy to help. And in all the other inordinate consumers of his valuable time in between. The smart lawyer has to send some callers on their way.
“Learn to say ‘no.’ It will be more valuable to you than reading Latin,” said Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
Most of us do not have much occasion to read Latin these days, so stick with Mr. Spurgeon’s central advice and learn to say no. This one discipline may be the most important one of all for the busy lawyer building a meaningful body of work in a career at the Bar.
I learned a lot from the case on which I should have said no, and I paid a high tuition for the instruction. Hopefully, this story will save you some tuition.
Wells is a partner with the firm of Wells, Jenkins, Lucas & Jenkins in Winston-Salem, where he practices in the estate planning area. He also writes a monthly legal column for the Winston-Salem Journal, and he is the host of a weekly public service legal call-in show on WSJS 600 AM.