The Solo Side: Learning to Say No as a Solo

Saying NO
By Cresston Gackle

When I started out as a solo attorney in 2019, it was easy to say yes. I was looking to get into the courtroom and represent clients as quickly and frequently as possible, so I said yes to every opportunity to connect and every potential client I could. It never crossed my mind in those early days that the hardest and most crucial thing I’d learn to do was to say no. Saying no to potential clients, to current clients, to referrals and other opportunities sets a critical boundary between can and cannot, between possible and not possible, and between will and will not. It’s the most important thing I do every day in practice.

Saying no is key to doing the kind of work we set out to do and doing it well. I am privileged in private solo practice to be allowed to assess a potential client’s case and decide whether my representation will not only serve the client’s goals, but also my own goals. Specifically, I look at whether my advocacy has a good chance of making a difference in the client’s life, whether I am interested in that area of law, and whether advocacy in that client’s specific case serves my sense of justice. Saying no is a form of self-management and brings into focus not only doing work that I feel is impactful, but also acknowledges there are limits on what I can do. Sometimes clients are best served by another attorney or firm and if I were to say yes to every potential representation, I’d soon be saying no to cases and clients that were better fits for my practice.

Saying no is key to the ethical practice of law. Even before I’ve opened a case, the rules of professional conduct require competence and diligence. Both require having enough time, energy, and expertise to complete necessary work by the many deadlines we have in the law. It’s never as simple as having a certain number of matters at any given time as emergencies always seem to present themselves on Friday nights. Saying no before reaching the limits of my time and energy is essential to making sure I have the breathing room to deal with the unexpected, particularly in family and juvenile law.

Saying no to clients and courts is also a learned skill. We tend to be on the lookout for some way of accomplishing the impossible, of finding the winning precedent or the single line or word in the contract that breaks the case––that’s what we’re taught to do in law school. But sometimes the practicalities of situations mean that failing to say no to a client or even to the court results in a bad service in wasted time or money. We lawyers have a tendency, and I’ll count myself among those that do, to have a hard time saying we can’t solve a problem to the degree a client wants it solved. It’s our responsibility as lawyers to be direct with potential clients about their legal options and the probability of success and understand our own role in telling a client we won’t be crossing our own boundaries of what and how much we’re willing to advocate.

Setting boundaries with work and how hard I work is a radical act of self-advocacy. One of the most difficult things we can do is advocate for ourselves, especially in our service-oriented and client-oriented profession. Our profession is also exceedingly competitive and frankly proud of how hard it works. We as a profession need to confront the fact that we all have limits and if we don’t do that, we’re only going to see the continued problems we see with mental health and addiction as well as the exodus from our profession of people who set healthy limits but were not recognized for doing so.

Saying no is key to our well-being as lawyers. A bad habit I fear most of us pick up or exacerbate in law school is that we push ourselves beyond a boundary of what’s healthy to over-prepare, over-research, over-write, and over-litigate issues, spending every extra hour of the evenings and weekends to do so. What we overestimate is the marginal return of our efforts when we do this. The quality of my work, in the short term and the long term, declines rapidly if I overwork and burn out. That’s just not something I can afford to do as a solo and why knowing my limits and holding my boundaries with work is essential to consistent service for my clients. I can’t help others if I don’t help myself, something we hear every time we get on a flight and are instructed to put on our own breathing mask before helping others.

Saying no is key to being more than just a lawyer. Being and becoming a lawyer comes with a lot of hard work and expectations, so much so that it feels like it becomes central to our being. It’s the first thing we mention after our name. I think, right or wrong, we feel it conveys something important about ourselves, a sense of accomplishment, respect, prestige, and a presumption that we do difficult work. We let our profession and our job descriptions define us to some degree. We’ve fought hard for those things and the idea of being someone who can change things with a few magical words in a brief or oral argument. But I believe we lose something if we think that’s all there is.

I have come to the end of some days exhausted having finished a lengthy brief and a dozen hearings, and felt nothing but tired and empty. I helped a lot of people on those days; I advocated, I counseled, I did my job, I did more than my job, and I made a difference. But in the end, I find that achievement—whether in completing difficult tasks, winning arguments, climbing one more rung on the ladder of our profession—is not what makes life worth living for me. I will always be passionate about serving my clients and fighting the fights I want to, but I will also say yes to all the things I love to do that make me more than just a lawyer. And that means just saying no.

Cresston-Gackle-150Cresston Gackle is a solo practitioner of juvenile and family law and a part-time public defender of children in child protection and delinquency matters. Before entering solo practice, he was a law clerk in the Fourth Judicial District. Originally from Iowa, Mr. Gackle pursued his education at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate and then as a law student. Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Gackle was an avid fair and festival goer and he now spends most of his leisure time learning and playing modern board games online.


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