Booked: Why Busy Lawyers Must Learn to Say No

The old saying goes, “If you want something done ask the busiest person in the room.” Many of us have been that person at one time or another, or felt a pang of guilt or envy because we weren’t. As lawyers we are expected to burn the candle at both ends. Successful lawyers not only do their work and handle their cases, but are also active in their community and profession. As every rainmaker knows, the key to bringing in new business is contacts and visibility! However, what is seldom mentioned is that the price of this success is often organizational burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression.

Of all the mindless behaviors a lawyer can engage in this is by far the one I am most guilty of. I became a lawyer because I wanted to be of service to others, so for many years when someone asked me to join an organization, board or accept an appointment, my immediate and unqualified response was, “Yes!” Well it didn’t take long for those 10 to 12 hour days at the office to be followed by hours of lunch, evening, and weekend meetings. Before long nearly every minute of my days, weeks, and weekends were booked. I was the busiest person in the room  – and I was miserable!

An inflection point occurred a year or so ago when several prominent lawyers in my community unexpectedly passed away. I recall reading their obituaries, which were impressive by any standard. They were filled with good deeds and professional accolades. Both men had achieved professional successes I was aspiring to, and I felt a subtle pang of envy. Then it occurred to me to look into their causes of death, since the obituaries didn’t say. A little investigation revealed the heart breaking truth, both men who were at the peaks of their careers, had the same cause of death: suicide.

Yes. I had been envying the overworked, overextended, and over stressed lives of men who themselves saw no escape from their burdens save death. That was the last time I envied the busiest person in the room, or in that case, the busiest person to have left the room.

We will never know why those men decided to take their lives. But I know I saw a future I didn’t want. I was overextended, miserable, and suffering from organizational burnout. My burdens were heavy, and it never felt like I would have enough time to do it all. I was miserable, and for the most part I had chosen to be that way. I said yes, when I wanted to say no. I gave time and energy, when I had none left to give. I had packed my life with obligations, and squeezed out every opportunity for joy.

I’m still in the process of making room for joy, but it started with learning to say, “No.” Now I try to reserve my yeses for things that bring me excitement. I put recreation in my calendar and make it immovable, because each of us owes our life the duty of joy.