Too Busy for What?

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by Peter A. Johnson, M.Ed., J.D. – 

How do you respond to people who make an innocuous inquiry such as, “How are you?” or “How’s business?”  Many of us instinctively say something along the lines of, “I’m busy. Very busy. So busy. Could not be any busier!”

Happy to hear that everything is going so well. But beware! The unspoken message being delivered may be interpreted as, “I am too busy for you,” and that perception comes with unintended consequences.

We’ve all heard the adage (widely attributed to Benjamin Franklin), “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” Because we are a society that places great value on productivity and activity, we all want to be (or appear to be) that person. It has become fashionable to “humble brag” about your own success by letting people know how busy you are. Being swamped with work has become a badge of honor.

But that eagerness to paint yourself as hard -working and industrious may put a crimp on future success. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I recently had the opportunity to refer a business acquaintance to an attorney. To my surprise, my friend said they had already considered contacting that lawyer but demurred because they had heard he was too busy and unlikely to take on a new client. In this case, having a reputation for being busy was self-defeating and probably cost the attorney an excellent client.

Being “too busy” can also threaten relationships with clients you already have. In an interview, a colleague conducted with a general counsel at a prominent company, the GC mentioned how much he enjoyed working with “Sarah,” the lead attorney at their outside law firm. But Sarah continually talked about how very busy she was, leading the general counsel to become genuinely concerned about her health. Worried about overworking Sarah, the company began distributing legal work to other outside firms without telling her because they didn’t want her to feel bad. Needless to say, Sarah became less busy when she found out!

Even internal referral sources may be wary of asking a colleague to handle a new client when the colleague has the reputation of always being “too busy” to devote the necessary time to developing and servicing that client. Clearly these are times when most attorneys are very busy. But think hard before saying, “No.” Your partners can be your best clients.

When people think you are too busy, they may be reluctant to present you with new opportunities. They need to be confident that you will devote the time and attention necessary to address their issue and solve their problem. Without that assurance it is very easy to find someone else who will be more attentive and focused.

What should you say instead of “I’m busy”? If you want to keep the door open to a relationship or opportunity, try these replies, instead:

  • “I’m a little overloaded right now, but I expect things to calm down soon. Can we touch base next week?”
  • “I’ve got a lot going on right now, but I can always make time for you. When would be a good time to catch up?”
  • “I’ve got a few deadlines coming up. I’d love to talk with you once I get past them.”
  • “I’ve been pretty active lately, but I am always on the lookout for interesting work. What can I help you with?”

Filling your time with productive and meaningful work is satisfying and a wonderful measure of a successful practice. But be careful how you characterize your workload, lest you run the risk of inadvertently turning aside the next great client or profitable project. Busy? Yes. Too busy? Never!

A former Managing Partner and compensation chair of a mid-sized law firm, Peter Johnson is the founder of Law Practice Consultants, LLC, providing coaching and business development training for attorneys, as well as firm management, compensation, and succession planning consulting services for some of the country’s leading law firms. He also holds graduate degrees in counseling psychology and is Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. 

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