Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 11, January 2001

Issue 11, January 2001

  • How to Say "No" Without Feeling Guilty

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Issue # 11
How to Say "No" Without Feeling Guilty



ARTICLE SUMMARY: The assumption that work should always come first, and the pressure on women attorneys to prove their commitment, can make it difficult to set appropriate boundaries around work. This issue offers new ways to think about and respond to law firm culture to ease the guilt that often accompanies limit setting.



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor

Ellen is the founder of™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life



Most attorneys -- especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.

Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life.

This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.


How to Say "No" Without Feeling Guilty

If you are going to let the fear of poverty govern
your life...your reward will be that you will eat, but
you will not live.
- George Bernard Shaw

One particular challenge I hear echoed in all my Women's Bar Association telegroups is how difficult it is to say "no" without feeling guilty, especially when you refuse work in order to carve out time for yourself. Many women attorneys can find ways to meet work and family demands, but feel guilty if they take any personal time for themselves.

When work and life are in conflict, every decision can induce feelings of guilt. Working long hours can leave you feeling guilty about neglecting your family; limiting your working hours so you can spend time with your family can make you feel guilty about shortchanging your clients and colleagues.

But the guilt you may feel when making these choices pales in comparison to what you can experience if you decide to devote time to your own personal needs. For most women lawyers reason that if they are fulfilling their obligations to family or work, then they are still being "responsible." But your own personal needs do not seem like the same kind of responsibility. Even scheduling a medical appointment becomes problematic. If someone at work objects to your being out of the office, you'll probably find a way to cancel it.

As an attorney, you value doing "the right thing" and doing it well. You tend to be very unforgiving if you fail to meet your own expectations. You don't need anyone else to make you feel guilty - you can probably do an excellent job all by yourself.

As Joan Williams elucidates in her powerful book, "Unbending Gender: Why Work and Family Conflict and What To Do About It," (1) our culture's separation of family work and market work leaves professional women torn between two worlds of competing expectations and inconsistent roles. And since family work is by and large still women's work, women learn to think of themselves as selfish when they take time for themselves.

It's important to see that women lawyers assume a burden most of their male counterparts are spared. All attorneys may hold themselves to the highest professional standards and may have difficulty giving priority to other aspects of their life besides work - even for brief amounts of time. But only women lawyers feel an equal responsibility for the care of their families. In fact, women are socialized to place the needs of others above their own and are labeled as selfish when they attend to their own personal needs.

Here is a list of strategies to make it easier to say "no" at work in order to have guilt-free time for yourself:

1. Try asking yourself why the other person's need or request is necessarily more important than your own. Since women are socialized to devalue their own needs, your automatic reaction may be to defer. But your first, automatic thought need not be your last. Remind yourself that you, too, are entitled to take care of yourself.

2. Realistically evaluate the outcome of your choice. What is the worst thing that might happen if you say "no?" How likely is that to happen? What could you do if it did?

3. Consider what will happen if you don't take care of yourself, in the short-and long-term. It's particularly easy for women lawyers to neglect regular exercise, medical appointments, and other necessities that are crucial for their own well-being.

In the long run, self-neglect usually renders you incapable of fulfilling your responsibilities to others.

4. Suppose you were in an accident and couldn't work at all. How would your colleagues and clients cope? This exercise helps remind you of the fact that no one is indispensable. It's not that you're not valuable - you are. But it is true that they'd get along without you if it was impossible for you to be there. Try thinking of the time you take for yourself as time when it's impossible for you to be working.

5. Keep in mind that people who know you know how to manipulate you with guilt, even if they do so unintentionally. And each time you've said "yes" instead of "no" you've reinforced them. That is, they know that they can get what they want if they look at you with disappointment or remind you of how you're inconveniencing them.

To break this pattern, you have to say "no" when you need to and mean it. Consistency is key. In time, they'll change the way they approach you.

6. Remind yourself of the gender unfairness inherent in our society and in the legal profession. The people who initially defined being a good lawyer as always putting work first usually had wives at home to take care of their families. Although increasing numbers of women have entered the profession, the definition of "ideal worker" (1) has still not changed.

7. Don't tell your colleague or client that you can't give them what they want right now because you need personal time. You don't need to explain. Remember that lawyers are always putting off clients to address the needs of other clients. Instead of focusing on what you can't do right now, tell the person making the request when you will be able to give your attention to the matter at hand.

8. Practice tolerating guilt. It's normal to feel guilt when our needs are in conflict with the needs of those about whom we care. It's unavoidable - unless you want your life to be entirely dictated by the needs of others. So practice saying "no" and living with the feeling for a while. You'll probably notice that it gradually subsides. And after a while, you'll be able to remind yourself that the uncomfortable feeling will pass and the consequences won't be catastrophic.

9. Build a back-up system. Forge alliances with colleagues and maintain good relationships with support staff. When you need to take time for yourself, ask these people to cover for you and offer to reciprocate.

10.Provide excellent client service. Clients will be able to tolerate the occasional "no" if you let them know that you are genuinely concerned about their welfare, keep them fully informed, stay in touch with them regularly and give them your full attention when you meet with them.


1. Williams, Joan (2000). "Unbending Gender: Why Work and Family Conflict and What To Do About It." New York: Oxford University Press.






BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.

Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.

She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the MentorCoach Program™.


NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.



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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.
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