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Make Room for Joy

Busy Lawyers Must Learn to Say No

By Zachary Horn

There’s a saying that goes, “If you want something done, ask the busiest person in the room.” Many of us have been that person at one time or another — or felt a pang of guilt or envy because we weren’t.

As lawyers, we are expected to burn the candle at both ends. Successful lawyers not only do their work and handle their cases but are also active in their community and the profession. And every successful rainmaker knows the key to bringing in new business is contacts and visibility!

Unfortunately, the price of this success is often organizational burnout, stress, anxiety and depression.

The Ever-Ready “Yes” Can Have a Heavy Cost

Of all the mindless and destructive behaviors a lawyer can engage in, I am by far most guilty of this one. Like most of us, I became a lawyer because I wanted to be of service to others. So, for many years, when someone asked me to join an organization, board or accept an appointment, my immediate and unqualified response was “yes!”

Well, it didn’t take long for those 10- to 12-hour days at the office to be followed by hours of evening and weekend meetings.

Before long nearly every minute of my days, weeks and weekends was booked. I was the busiest person in the room — and I was miserable.

An inflection point occurred a year or so ago when two prominent lawyers in my community unexpectedly passed away. I recall reading their obituaries, which were filled with good deeds and impressive professional accolades. Both men had achieved professional successes I was aspiring to, and I felt a subtle pang of envy. The obituaries did not include a cause of death, but a little investigation revealed the heartbreaking truth. Both men had the same cause of death: suicide.

Yes. I had been envying the overworked, overextended, overstressed lives of men who themselves saw no escape from their burdens. That was the last time I envied the busiest person in the room.

Making Room for Joy

I will never know why those men decided to take their lives. But I know I saw a future I didn’t want. I was overextended, unhappy and suffering from organizational burnout. My burdens were heavy, and it never felt like I would have enough time to do it all. I was miserable, and for the most part, I had chosen to be that way.

  • I said yes when I wanted to say no.
  • I gave time and energy when I had none left to give.
  • I had packed my life with obligations and squeezed out every opportunity for joy.

I’m still in the process of making room for joy, but it started with learning to say no.

Now I try to reserve my yeses for things that bring me excitement. I put recreation on my calendar and make it immovable — because each of us owes our life the duty of joy.

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Categories: Attorney Work-Life Balance, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Associates, Well-Being
Originally published May 9, 2018
Last updated December 28, 2018
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Zachary Horn

Zachary Horn is a partner in the Frankfort, Ky., office of McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, where he practices in the areas of civil litigation, banking, creditors’ rights, and bankruptcy. He is Vice Chair of the Kentucky Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and a frequent speaker and advocate for attorney wellness and mindfulness in the law. Zachary blogs on issues relating to attorney wellness and mindfulness at

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