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How I Learned to Say No Early in My Career as a Lawyer

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If you are reading this article, then maybe you are in a position I was in about 20 years ago. Maybe not in the same position, inasmuch as, I never even aspired for a job, for I knew Big Law was never going to hire me. I had a law license, but had no idea how to go about things and become a lawyer. I had passed the bar, but deep down, I knew, I was only a lawyer in name and on papers.
New lawyers need to learn to say no

I did not have the connections, the dash, or the pedigree. Nobody cared about my JD certificate, and almost none cared about what was going to happen to me. I had no one in my family practicing law, no connections at court, and I was a full-scale introvert – meaning I had few friends, and even those whom I had, had no idea about the career track of a lawyer.

But I prevailed. I made mistakes. Big mistakes that still make me feel embarrassed when I think about them, but I worked, and learned, and made mistakes and learned, and learned that one happy client was worth a minimum of $100,000, over a small lawyer's career, even if he may be paying only pittance up front. So, having about 20 good and happy clients, even small clients, was great for a starter, because law practice grows and reduces in geometric progression.

I remember, I began my journey at the chamber of a great lawyer – one of the most well-known in my state, and also known nationally. From him, whom I shall not name, I received my first lesson of greatness.

It was on a Saturday evening that I first met the person whom I still take to be one of my greatest teachers. I had made a prior appointment over the phone, and waited with bated breath in the lounge outside his cabin, hoping to join his firm as an associate. He called me in after some time and graciously asked me to take a seat.

I must admit I still feel indebted that he even spared one minute to listen to what I had to say. But he did listen, and gave a full 15 minutes hearing to my blusters and efforts to prove my worth. He asked some questions, and also asked me whether I had some place or relatives to stay at New York or not. I replied to the negative. Then he told me with total candor that according to him, my only option was to seek work in New York. He was certain that I would never receive the appreciation that I deserved at the State bar. I was meant for greatness, I was meant for New York.

When I walked out of his chamber, I felt grateful that at least this one person had the intelligence to understand my worth. It took at least 72 hours for the fact to slowly sink in, that in fact, he had not only kicked me out of his chamber, but had also told me to my face, he wished I had been kicked out of the state. Only he did not say it explicitly.

That is greatness, and that is a great lawyer. Even when he would convey the most negative things, he would do it in a positive manner eliciting appreciation and resonating with the listener. That is what I learned on that evening. That evening, I learned how to refuse offers, proposals, and other things in the proper manner. I learned how to say no. And it saved me throughout my career. I used that lesson in almost every opportunity, not only to say no, but also in almost every situation – to say things in a manner where what I wanted to say was conveyed without any ill effect. That is what I learned the first time I was refused work as an associate. And it is a very important skill in the arsenal of a lawyer.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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About Harrison Barnes

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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