Dear LiL: In your response to Trying to Change, her question spoke to being asked to take on additional work because she does NOT have kids. The response you gave spoke to having kids and juggling work. The discrimination against employees without kids was missed. Your response should have addressed how to say no when it’s expected that those without kids have lots of time to take on work. Signed ~ Oversight
Dear Oversight: Thanks for pointing out how we could improve on our response to Trying to Change. I’d like to address it now.
A child at home is certainly not the only pressure women lawyers face and one of my personal pet peeves is the mother/non-mother divide.
Women, mothers or not, face unique challenges in the legal profession. Many women today have children later in their careers or not at all. Many of these women (disproportionate to their male counterparts, in my view) end up taking care of elderly parents and relatives. Many are actively involved in their communities through volunteer work and board positions. Some coach, tutor, write.
It is absolutely critical, to the advancement of women in the legal profession and society at large, to recognize these realities and empower all women – those who are mothers and those who are not to say “no” to workloads they do not have capacity to take on as well as workloads that will not result in a promotion, advancement of one’s skills or building of one’s practice. It is important to temper that societally ingrained need to be liked (and say “yes”, all the time).
In my view, setting boundaries early on, based on what works for your life, is key.
First, I would advise my colleagues of the things I am engaged in outside of work and make it clear that these are important to me. If, for example, you have to leave work on Wednesday at 3 pm to coach little league, or volunteer at a shelter, or partake in a hobby that you care about, I suggest putting it in your calendar, and, depending on how closely you work with other lawyers in the firm on a daily basis, put a note in their calendar as well.
Second, I would stick to my guns. Do not change your plans just because something at work has come up unless it is absolutely urgent and no one else can do it effectively (i.e., your client is facing an emergency, needs immediate advice and wants to have a conference call at 3 pm on Wednesday with their entire team). The more times you miss your 3 pm activity, the less important it will seem in the eyes of your colleagues.
Third, say no, mean it, and do not apologize for it. If you are working hard, meeting your targets and producing good work, you have a right (nay, a responsibility to your fellow lawyers, male and female) to say “no” to work that does not interest you, work that you cannot do on a timely basis, work that would overwhelm you and cause you significant stress or impact the quality of your other work, as well as work that will not advance your skills or your practice (the last being a key consideration if you are not a very junior lawyer). There are of course exceptions to this – sometimes, it is the smart thing to do, to take on work that pushes you beyond your capacity for a short time but will pay major dividends in the future. Most of the time, that is not the case and a firm, but polite “no, I am at capacity” is the way to go. My general view (although not everyone shares this) is to give a reason. I will say something about my workload and current deadlines, ultimately concluding that I could not give the new task the priority or the time it deserves. Keep the explanation short and do not waver.