Friday, August 2, 2013

How to Say No.

We've all heard the (and probably repeated often) the in house lawyer motto - "never say no."  It's a rule that we live by - always find a way to help your client accomplish their goals.  Don't say no, say we can't do it that way but here's how we can accomplish the same thing.  It's one of the most valuable traits of an in house lawyer and also a trait that differentiates us from firm lawyers.  Because of that it's one of the first things we teach lawyers coming in house for the first time.

Often though, we stop there and don't go on to acknowledge the fact that sometimes the answer is plainly and simply "no."  As in, 'No, you can't dump your toxic waste into the lake no matter how much cheaper the fine is than the cost of disposing of it properly.' Or 'No, you can't fire the pregnant woman because she's over forty and her ovulation gets on your nerves.'

At some point in your career you will be asked a question that boggles your mind and challenges your Never Say No motto.  We've been warned over and over again that saying no will change the way the business looks at you.  It will turn you from the trusted business partner to the dreaded legal hurdle.  You'll start being left out of meetings and decisions because the business is more afraid that you'll say no than they are of just doing the wrong thing anyway.  So how do you give the best advice without bringing down house of cards around you?  The secret is in how you communicate the answer.

I was asked a hypothetical question based on a real world example.  If this hadn't had been just X but had also had Y involved, could we handle it the same way?  I answered directly and simply - No.  More would be involved - more cost, more effort and more publicity.  That was not the answer the business wanted.  It did change my relationship with that team and damaged the reputation that I had spent years building.  Another attorney was asked the same question.  From a legal and ethical standpoint, the only right answer was No.  However he more artfully deflected the question.  Instead of going into the legal analysis of the question asked as I did, he answered with questions of his own - why do we need to know that?  Is there a risk the Y would be involved?  Was that risk material or was this merely an academic exercise?  Because there are so many variables that aren't tied down in the example there's no point in talking about what if's.  For the actual situation we did not need to go through the extra costs that I discussed.  His non-answer was much better received and set him up to become a trusted adviser for that team.

Sometimes you don't have the luxury of hypotheticals to help you weasel out of giving the direct "no" answer.  You're faced with a real time question that requires a definitive answer.  You'll get the same response  that I did above if you go directly with a simple 'No we can't' approach.  You have to buffer it with some explanation that shows that you've considered not just the legal implications but the business ones as well - i.e. "I realize that delaying the start of the new employee from next week to the normal X number of days it takes for the immigration paperwork to be complete will slow down the project and cost the company in both productivity and time.  However, if we don't follow the law precisely in these cases you run the risk of the company losing it's ability to sponsor other candidates - but you as the signer on the paperwork could face personal criminal liability.  We sponsor an average of 3 employees a quarter, this one project isn't worth jeopardizing all the rest."

Don't get me wrong, your client still won't like hearing No.  They never do.  But the reality of in house practice is not that we never say no - it's that we never just say no.

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