Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Five Ways To Say Yes By Saying No

Lawyers Mutual BlogThere is an art to saying no – and when done right it can sound an awful lot like yes.

Knowing how to do it correctly could mean the difference between success and sorrow in your law practice.

It is tempting – especially for new attorneys – to accept any case that comes in the door. The temptation increases when the matter has merit or the prospective client has money in hand. Plus we are trained to help people. We are taught to be nice.

But the best road is sometimes the one not taken. Often the nicest thing we can do – to ourselves and others – is to say no.

And we should say it not just to potential clients but also to current clients who ask us to do things thing are improper, unwise, ill-advised or just plain dumb.

Nada. Absolutely not. Nope. By no means. Negative. Nix. Not on your life. No way. Not at all. Nixville. Not on your mother’s life. Nay. Not a chance. No sir. No ma’am. Nothing doing. Not for love or money. Never. Not if you paid me. Nosiree bob. Not if your mother paid me.

You can always simply choose one of the above words and then go your merry way. Usually, though, you don’t want to burn your bridges down to a smoldering cinder. A touch of tact is appropriate.

Here then are five good ways to make no sound remarkably like yes:

  • Make a referral. Don’t just send the client packing. Give them names of other lawyers who might be able to help. Refer them to a social agency, public defender or mental health center. Suggest a good book or restaurant to take their mind off their misery. You will be providing a valuable service without locking yourself into a relationship.
  • Say yes first. This assumes you receive a request that you want to accept but can’t commit to because of time constraints or other reasons. Business blogger Leo Baubata suggests saying something like, “Yes, but I’m slammed now. How about in a month when my calendar clears up.” Or, “Yes, but could you do x, y or z first so we can see if this will work before we go forward.” This way, he says, you are not giving a flat rejection and you are protecting yourself by putting the action back in their court.
  • Express yourself. Sometimes blunt is best. Other times a flat no can be misinterpreted as disinterest or antipathy. In such situations it might help to explain your reasoning. This shows empathy and lets clients know they have been heard.
  • Ask questions. Restate the request, then point out trouble areas. For example: “Great idea, but who’s going to pay for that nuclear engineering expert?” Or “I hear you, but how do you suggest we serve the subpoena on the Queen of England?” Mary Byers, consultant and author of How to Say No … And Live to Tell About It, says one should never be too quick to shoot down even impossible or imprudent requests, because it cuts off all other options. “Don’t ever use the word no,” she recommends.
  • Say maybe. Even if you cannot fully commit to the client’s proposal, perhaps there is a middle ground that is mutually acceptable. Consider a counteroffer or alternative method of proceeding.

If your ever-so-polite no turns out to be too subtle or is simply ignored, move to Plan B – by dissing Miss Manners and blurting out one or more of the words  in the above paragraph. Better to be safe than sued.

And don’t forget to follow up your in-person declination with a confirmation letter. This will protect you while adding an exclamation point to the no!

Lawyers Mutual has sample form letters of non-engagement that are free and available. Visit and click on “risk management resources.” Or call the client services department at 1-800-662-8843 for more information.

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Jay Reeves is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. He has practiced in both states and was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He writes the Risk Man column of practice pointers and risk management tips. Contact or phone 919-619-2441.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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