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On Balance

Apply the ‘If It’s Not a Hell Yeah, It’s a No’ Mantra

By Megan Zavieh

You may have heard it before: “If it’s not a hell yeah, it’s a no.” It’s a great line, often quoted by Tim Ferriss and broken down in wonderful detail in “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown.

The concept is relatively simple. We are all constantly inundated with demands on our time. Say yes too easily and you become overburdened, cannot perform at your highest level on any of your tasks … and ultimately become completely burned out.

Thus, we all need to say no more often.

Most of Us Can Get Behind the Idea of Saying No

Few of us are dreaming of being able to take on one more volunteer opportunity. Still, saying no can be so very difficult.

And yet we know it’s true: Without firm boundaries on our yeses, we do become overburdened. We struggle to keep up and inevitably drop the ball on clients and potential clients. And if we are not careful, it can be our professional undoing. So, how do you know when it’s a “hell yeah” or a definite no?

What Is a Hell Yeah?

A hell yeah is tough to define. It will be different for each of us.

In “Essentialism,” McKeown breaks it down using a decision tree, where you identify criteria that an obligation must meet in order to be a “yes.” The criteria will depend on your personal and professional goals. This means you cannot determine your own “hell yeah” based on what someone else is doing. Your friend thinks an upcoming conference is a can’t-miss, so it’s a hell yes? Sure — for them. You have to do your own test to see if you should join in or not.

To me, the analysis gets a bit burdensome, so I end up doing most of my activity-sifting by feel: If I say no and this thing happens without me, how am I going to feel? Am I OK with that?

For example, recently I had to say no to a conference I adore and have never missed. My dilemma? It was the first day of school for my kids, with one switching schools. I put myself in the emotional space of missing the conference — I felt super bummed. Then I put myself in the emotional space of missing the first day of school — and the choice was obvious. Being home for the first day of school was a hell yeah. Nothing else mattered.

Ways to Bring It Home

Here are some ways the “hell yeah” concept comes up in law practice — and how you can work on saying no.

Niching Down

Niching down is the idea that you narrow your practice and narrow it again until you are the No. 1 expert in your very narrow field. This is scary for a lot of lawyers because it means saying no to a lot of work that may come your way.

Consider this example. You’re a personal injury lawyer. You know the tort law in your state and can help anyone injured. You take on car accidents, motorcycle accidents, medical devices gone awry and anything else that hurts someone. Then you decide to niche down. You become the expert in representing 30-something women who had a specific type of IUD for five or more years, and who upon removal of the device tried for more than two years to become pregnant. Super niche. Very narrow.

When the car accident case calls, you turn them away. It is scary, but that accident case is no longer your niche.

How does practicing in a super niche help prevent overburdening and burnout? Some might say it is more likely to cause missed mortgage payments and financial stress.

When you practice in a very narrow niche, your ideal client is going to find you. You speak directly to them in your marketing — you are clearly the person to call for their specific issue. You also choose a niche with enough business to support it.

(A great podcast on this point is one of the original Maximum Lawyer episodes with Jim Hacking and Tyson Mutrux called “Niching Down.”)

Stress is less because when your niche is narrow, you know the law and the process for that area inside and out. You are not scrambling to research new issues on every case, learning a new court or its processes, or otherwise venturing into unfamiliar territory for each client. And you can put systems and templates in place to quickly process cases, leading to more efficiency and capacity.

Before long, you should be making far more money than you would with a broader practice.

Conferences and Speaking Engagements

If you attend or speak at conferences as part of your practice, it can be easy to get bogged down in the options, the FOMO (fear of missing out) and peer pressure. But if you attend all the events, you will spend a small fortune, miss a ton of work hours and sacrifice significant time with family. At some point, you have to make choices and “attend every conference” is very likely not the best one.

So what questions can go into your analysis of whether or not to attend a specific conference? Here are some ideas from my experience:

  • If I’d be a speaker, are the audience members my target clients? Referral sources?
  • Are other attendees people I would get a tangible benefit from connecting with in person?
  • Are there attendees I will not see at another event?
  • What personal sacrifices are involved in attending this particular conference? Any date conflicts with important life events (such as the first day of school)?
  • What is the cost of attending, including travel and the incidentals that tend to add up?
  • Are there sessions or keynotes on the agenda that are really enticing? Can they be seen on YouTube later? Is there a benefit to seeing them live and on the date they are presented?

If you critically analyze each conference opportunity, the “hell yeah’s” become more clear.

(Related: “Five Questions to Ask Before You Say Yes to a Speaking Gig” by Merrilyn Astin Tarlton)

Ideal Clients

Similar to the niching down idea is the concept of creating an avatar for your ideal client and saying no to the ones who don’t fit it. Again, turning away business is a scary prospect. However, working with your ideal clients is much less stressful, less prone to ethics complaints and more profitable than working with every person who comes through your door.

Everyone’s ideal client is different, but the criteria you use to narrow down your client field should be things that make working with a client simpler and smoother.

For example, if you are very tech-driven in your practice, an analog client is probably not a good fit. If your processes require that your client responds to emails, fills out online forms and electronically signs documents, then a client who is largely offline is going to require special handling at every step. Neither of you will be very satisfied with the relationship.

Identify what goes into being your ideal client, and put in place screening measures to try to attract the ideal ones and not the less-than-ideal fits.

Continue to Work Your System

It takes a while to get used to the “hell yeah” concept, but continue to work it. As you become more aware, you will probably kick yourself swiftly when you say yes too quickly. But you will get better at it.

In addition, guilt you may feel from saying no (a common problem) begins to dissipate as you realize that by saying no, you are doing yourself and the person asking for your time a favor. The favor for yourself is obvious. The favor for the other person is that they can get someone to fill your shoes who will be more energetic and committed. It will be their “hell yeah!”

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Categories: Lawyer Stress, Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility, On Balance, You At Work
Originally published August 28, 2019
Last updated September 4, 2019
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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Her latest book, “The Modern Lawyer: Ethics and Technology in an Evolving World,” (ABA 2021 ) covers how to run a modern practice while staying in line with current ethics rules. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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