How To Say No To The Senior Partner

Hold Up there – WHAT did you want me to do?

This is a guest post from Mitch Jackson – be sure to check him out using the links at the end of the article!

It’s 6:00 p.m. and you’ve been in the office 10 straight hours. The day has been long and chaotic. You’re finally finishing the discovery motion senior partner, Bob Johnson, gave you yesterday afternoon before he bolted from office early to play a round of golf. He told you he needed the motion done before you left this evening. If you’re lucky you can still make it to your son’s soccer game that starts in an hour.

All of sudden there’s a short knock and your door swings open. It’s Mr. Johnson and he has the same look in his eyes that he had yesterday afternoon. Not unexpectedly he asks, “Hey Tom, I have a deposition tomorrow and need you to summarize medical records this evening to help me prepare. Can you get this done before calling it a night?”

You’ve already missed your son’s last two games. If you’re a no show tonight your son is going to be very disappointed and your wife is going to kill you. You quickly evaluate options. If you say “no problem” then Mr. Johnson will think you’re a superstar and you’ll be on the fast track to partnership. On the other side of the coin, you’ll miss another game, your son will feel as though you don’t care and your life at home will not be a happy one.

If you say “no” then you may upset Mr. Johnson and that’s never a good thing.

Advice from a senior partner

First let me say that I am a senior partner and can appreciate both positions. As an associate who is interested in climbing the partnership ladder, it’s important to gain the trust and respect of the partners and be the guy or gal they can count on to get the job done without too much handholding.

At the same time, long term business relationships require mutual respect. It’s never a good idea to let anyone walk all over you for any reason. If you find yourself in this position more than occasionally, then you’re probably handling things the wrong way and frankly, may not even be at the right firm (smart partners don’t do this very often to associates).

In any case, let’s say you’ve done your part and have always been there to handle the self-imposed last minute “fire drills” created by Mr. Johnson and the other partners. If you’re ready to say no and instead spend some much needed quality time and attention with your family, here’s how I’d recommend you handle it.

Learn how to say “No” in a reasonable and respectful way

You’re goals in using the “No” word are to (1) get the result you’re looking for and (2) do so in a way that is respectful and doesn’t burn bridges. Do these two things correctly and you will also accomplish a third important goal and that is earning the respect of the senior partner.

Here’s how I suggest you say no to Mr. Johnson’s last minute request:

“Mr. Johnson, I’m honored that you trust the quality of my work and ask for my help when needed. Tonight I have plans with my wife to attend my son’s soccer game. I’ve missed the last two working late at the office and am unable to miss this game.”

Note that you didn’t use the term “I don’t think I can miss the game” or “I’m not sure my wife would be OK with me missing the game.” What you did unequivocally say is that you are “unable to miss the game.”

When you respond in this fashion you must do so with respect and gratitude. Avoid discussing related facts or options. This is key to making this approach work.

If Mr. Johnson persist and tells you there isn’t anyone else who can get the job done, you need to hold your ground, smile and in a sincere way respond:

“I’m unable to stay late this evening but thank you for considering me.”

Again, you didn’t open up a can of worms discussing the tangent issue regarding whether or not someone else was available. Instead you stuck to your guns and unequivocally stated you were “unable to stay late this evening.”

This approach clearly communicates an answer to the question and in a way that that doesn’t offend Mr. Johnson. By how you handle the situation, Mr. Johnson understands that you’re taking the needs of your family into consideration and that’s a good thing. If you do this in a gracious way and share big picture reasons why you must say no this particular time, I doubt you will experience long term damage. In fact, as a senior partner, I’ll respect you for politely standing your ground and putting your family first.

Being able to create a clear and well-marked line in the sand will help improve the quality of your life as an associate (editor’s note – for my Australian readers, an associate here is simply a non-partner). This works equally as well with Senior Partners who are bullies as it does with those who simply have challenges with time management.

Other ways to say “no”

In other situations when dealing with clients, opposing counsel and even judges, the key to success is to be specific and direct. Always use gratitude and kindness when declining an opportunity. For example, when asked by a client to attend an unnecessary business meeting or event you may want to respond with something like the following:

“Thank you for your kind offer. While it’s not something I’ll be able to do, please know how honored I am to be asked.”

You offer no excuses. You simply decline the invitation.

If the other person continues to be persistent, don’t get dragged into a factual type of argument re time, distance, needs or whatever the issue is. Instead, a good follow-up should be simply:

“I’m unable to, but thank you so much for considering me.”

Regardless of who the other person is, he or she should understand that your answer is firm. Because you were gracious and appreciative in how you responded, the other person should not be offended.


Saying no to senior partners and others should be an exception and not the norm. You want to be known as the associate that everyone can count on to get the job done. When you need to say no, I’d recommend using this approach. The chances are high that by doing so, you’ll be known as the associate who has his or her priorities straight and understands the balance of hard work and family life. In other terms, you’ll be known among the partners as the associate who has his act together and is real partnership material.

And one more thing. When you become a senior partner at your firm, don’t be like Mr. Johnson.


About the Author

Jon Mitchell “Mitch” Jackson is a senior partner in the firm of Jackson & Wilson, Inc.  In 2013 Mitch was named California Litigation Lawyer of the Year (CLAY Award) and 2009 Orange County Trial Lawyer of the Year. When he’s not trying cases, Mitch uses social media to help good attorneys become great trial lawyers and to show everyone (not just lawyers) how to communicate more effectively. His new blog, Human.Social and Human Side Interviews share interesting people of influence who are changing our world. Please connect with Mitch on Twitter.

Mitch enjoys Twitter so please connect @Mitchjackson