First Week at the Firm: Saying No to Inappropriate Work Requests

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 16, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Welcome to "First Week at the Firm," a FindLaw feature for beginning associates, focused on helping you navigate the transition into firm life. We hope you'll enjoy this new series and come back regularly for more insider tips.

Welcome to the firm! Mind doing my laundry, grabbing my kids from school, and bringing me a coffee? Yes, it is pretty unlikely you'll be greeted with these questions (if you are, congratulations on being one of the world's highest paid gophers). But sooner or later, you will probably get an inappropriate work request, something that just doesn't sit right.

An inappropriate work request might come your first week at the firm, or your second year, but odds are it will come, sooner or later. How should you respond?

How High?

If your assigning partner or attorney asks you to do something, short of breaking the law, the most common advice would be to smile and agree. Already too busy? Find time. Not your specialty? Start learning. Got weekend plans? Cancel them.

After all, you're working in an industry where twelve hour days and no weekends aren't unheard of. As a starting associate, you want to show your senior attorneys that you're up for any challenge, even if you'd rather not be.

Saying No Without Saying No

Of course, there are inappropriate work requests that you simply will have to turn down. Is a partner giving you a new assignment whose deadline butts up against another major project? Don't say you can't do it, but point out the similar deadlines and ask which of the two should be your priority. A smart lawyer will figure out that she needs to hand the project off to another associate or push back the deadline.

Just Saying No

Of course, there are inappropriate work requests that you simply will have to turn down. Is a second year associate from the tax division trying to get you to help out when you've been assigned to intellectual property? Try asking that it be cleared with the senior attorney managing your matter.

Are other attorneys constantly asking for your to grab coffee for them, round up lunch orders or take the notes during meetings? Politely remind them that there are secretaries and other support staff who traditionally handle those tasks. If it continues, you may have a problem, especially if you're a woman. As Ellen Pao's recent discrimination lawsuit reminded us, even women putting together billion dollar deals can still be treated like secretaries in some workplaces. The legal industry is no exception.

In these cases, just say no. Further, consider talking to the firm's H.R. department and seek out other women (or non-idiot men) with experience in the firm, current or past, for advice on how to navigate such issues.

Remember, Culture Matters

Finally, as with all advice, tailor it to the culture of your firm. Some firms might encourage a more relaxed, back and forth rapport where you can freely suggest alternative strategies or discuss how to lesson your crushing workload. Some may be more Victorian, thinking that associates, like children, should be seen and not heard. Let your understanding of what will fly guide your response to inappropriate work requests.

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