Legal Practice,  Work Life Balance

Value Your Time: Learning to Say No

Learning to value your time is a skill. When you’re new to the profession you may add too much to your plate because you want to impress the higher-ups, or you want experience, or you just don’t know if you can really say no. I totally get that it’s not easy to recognize when some opportunities are just not right for you. But not knowing when to say no (even as a student) can lead to you wasting your time, feeling demoralized, and neglecting other, more important, projects. I learned this the hard way when I was a 3L:

My law school had a pretty prestigious trial advocacy fellowship (that I was NOT a part of—though, if I’m being honest, in my heart of hearts I wanted to be). Ok so 3L year, I’m president of the Latinx student group. It’s the end of the year, I’m HELLA busy with finals and bar prep and life, etc. I’m approached by faculty asking if I would be so kind as to help them greet alumni and other local legal community “dignitaries’” who were coming to a reception to honor the man who was behind this fellowship. As a thank you, they said, I could attend the reception afterwards. So to summarize, the ask was to stand by the main doors and direct people to an elevator to the 10th floor.

I said yes. I said yes because I thought it was the “nice” thing to do. I said yes because they painted this as a networking opportunity. And, again, if I’m honest, I was naïve and thought that being so acquiescent would result in me being accepted/welcomed by them somehow.

So, it’s the night of the event, me and another student (of color, also exec member of a cultural org) are given brief instruction and then are tasked with greeting these alumni—most who definitely knew how to get to the 10th floor—and it was after the first attendee kind of whizzed past me that I realize how big of a waste of my time this was going to be, and I was right. No one was checking for the person saying hi and pointing to elevators. And worse, the administrators in charge of the event never made an effort to come down to let us know when to join them at the reception. So I stood there for over an hour (!) until I slowly just slunk away…

I gained nothing from that event—no new connections, recognition, leads to a job, nothing. In fact, I felt embarrassed afterward that I didn’t realize straightaway that they wanted students of color greeting people and that I was being used to make others look better (the irony being that for a long time there were hardly any students of color admitted into that fellowship)…

But hindsight is 20/20. I know now that I should have said thanks, but no thanks to that request. But like I said, it takes time to learn your value. Even as a new attorney, I slowly learned what my limits were and even then it took time for me to get comfortable saying no.

How do I determine whether something is worth my time? I ask myself a few questions:

One. How does this help me? ::gasp:: I know! Aren’t we supposed to be altruistic in our legal practice?! I mean, yes and no. Yes, we should use our degrees to help and better other people’s lives, but you are also allowed to have goals and aspirations and an idea of how you want your career to develop. It’s ok to say no to some requests if the benefit is one-sided. I always consider what type of skill am I gaining from this experience. Or I ask myself if I can make a connection that can be useful down the line? Or is this helping me further any other professional goal I may have? Knowing that this is a two-way benefit makes it easier for me to decide if I’m going to say yes.

Two. How big of an ask is this? Sometimes people asking for your help don’t consider all that goes into it (or don’t care) and paint it as a small favor. For example, they want you to do a training on a new city ordinance or talk to a group of law students, not a huge request right? Ok, but do you need to travel? Do you need to create a presentation? Do you need to prepare for your talk? How big is the audience? Who is the audience? Is this going to take up half a day on your weekend? All of that takes time and resources away from other things that also require time and resources. What do you do when you show up to your city ordinance talk and only five people are there? Is this time well-served for you? Maybe, but maybe not. For me, it’s imperative to consider what this favor will cost me in terms of time and energy before I commit to it so that I know it’s worth it for me.

Three. Do I want to do this? Let’s be honest, most times we’re asked to do something extra, we’re apprehensive to do it. So I ask myself, is this something I’d want to do with my time in any other circumstance? Is my apprehension right now because of stress/nerves or is this request just really not something I want to do even if I had the time to do it? Figuring that out is useful because it allows me to say yes to things I may be apprehensive about because I know that ultimately I’ll enjoy it. For example, most outreach efforts for me require a lot of travel, which I don’t love. But, I also know how re-energized I feel after participating in outreach efforts so knowing that the end result will be a benefit for me, I tend to say yes, even though there is a portion of this that I’m dreading.

Again, you have a right to value your time. Yes, when you’re a new attorney there will be instances where you feel like you can’t say no (or saying no makes it look like you’re not a team-player), and obviously you need to gauge the impact of saying no. Yet, too often we feel that saying no means we’re not humble or that we’re imply we’re above certain type of work. But rather than thinking your decision is a value judgement of what you’re being asked to do, remind yourself that you’re really just recognizing that your time can be better served elsewhere in a different way And saying no to this request doesn’t mean you’re saying no forever! It just means you can’t add it to your plate right now. Ultimately you have to remember that it is always ok to set boundaries, to value your time, and to seek out opportunities that allow you to grow because it’s your career–no one else’s.