Delegation – Do you get it right?

DelegationEffective delegation is a critical component of any functioning law practice that has more than one person and expects to grow.

Why is Delegation Important?

Some people don’t seem to see the benefit in delegation.  After all, “if you want something done properly, do it yourself”.

But then, there are only so many hours in the day.  Effective delegation is, ultimately, a form of leverage allowing you to achieve better and more results despite your own limited resources.

Amongst other things, delegation for lawyers is important because:

  • Delegation impacts on profitability.  Poor delegation increases the cost of delivering services by utilising higher cost resources (senior staff) for tasks that could often otherwise be done by more junior staff.  A higher cost of delivery also impacts on competitive place in the market;
  • Giving junior lawyers tasks to do which increase their practical skills and knowledge ultimately benefits the firm in the long run, allowing them to expand their capabilities;
  • Similarly, junior lawyers who are delegated to effectively feel a consistent sense of trust and growth from their supervisors.  This will impact positively on their morale;
  • Good delegation allows the senior staff members to focus on tasks that actually require their greater experience and contribute at a more strategic or high level to the firm by working on the business of the firm, and not necessarily on the delivery of the service itself (obviously to some extent senior lawyers must stay involved in day to day practice – as well as an ethical obligation it is appropriate risk management to ensure that quality is maintained – that’s not, however, an excuse to avoid delegation).

Excuses to Avoid Delegating

Here are some common observations made by poor delegators, and my thoughts on why they aren’t very good excuses:

  • “Every time I delegate to a junior, they stuff it up” – if the tasks aren’t being done properly then you have only one person to blame: you.  There are only a few real options for why tasks you delegate are not being done to your standard:
    • You have made bad hiring decisions;
    • You’re not delegating properly (see below);
    • You’re not training your staff properly.
  • “The client expects me to do the work” – sometimes this is true, but usually is not.  Most surveys suggest that lawyers dramatically overestimate this expectation on behalf of their clients.  Whether the presumption stems from ego or fear (of losing control of the client, that is), I don’t know.  By and large what clients normally want is for the job to be done at high quality, in a timely fashion and on cost.  If they haven’t specifically told the partner to do the work personally, then don’t assume that’s what they want.
  • “I’ve got my own budgets I need to meet” – of all the bad excuses this is the worst.  If the firm’s reporting is so myopic that it only looks at personal productivity, then the internal processes need to be fixed.   A senior lawyer providing enough work to 5 junior solicitors but not making their own budget is probably still yielding greater profit than one who meets their own budget but does not keep their junior staff busy.  They might look like lower performers to the uninformed, but hopefully the firm “powers that be” know better.  This issue is too big to deal with here, but can be a problem in a lot of firms.  Add to that the boredom (and associated staff turnover) that comes from under-delegation and you have an easy pick as to the preference, in my view.

How To Delegate Properly (and to be delegated to)

  • First, identify the task with enough precision.  Sometimes greater detail will be needed than others, and sometimes the task will be wishy washy.  But either way, ensure that the junior knows exactly what is expected of them
  • Set a realistic deadline, after speaking with your intended junior.  This involves ensuring that your own time to review or settle the product is included, and you have provided a time by which the junior staff member must bring their draft (or results, or whatever) to you
  • Identify how long, in real time, you think it should take.  For example “the research shouldn’t take you more than 2 hours, and then 1 further hour to put together the draft letter”.  Ensure that the junior comes back to you if those estimates are turning out to be impossible.  This avoids two problems:
    • First, time getting written off because it took longer than you thought;
    • Estimates provided to the client being inaccurate.
  • Somebody take notes of the discussion (guess what – this will be you, junior lawyer)
  • Don’t call it urgent if it’s not.  OK this is a bit of a pet peeve, but some seem to think that they will jump to the top of the priority list by calling everything they do “really urgent”.  The task is then completed (at the cost of the other tasks that had to be set to one side) and then not looked at for two days.  If it’s urgent, that’s fine – but don’t be the “boy who cried wolf” on this one, or people will just start ignoring you…
  • Make sure you have an open door policy in case the task requires clarification.  Point ‘n’ shoot doesn’t work in the law – often complex tasks develop while being undertaken, and so more information might be needed or clarification of the intended path might be required.
  • Finally, ensure you provide enough facts.  I have seen time and time again a wonderful task be completed and then the senior lawyer say “oh but X doesn’t apply because Y and Z are applicable to this one”.  Was that a great exercise in how to waste somebody’s time and the client’s money?  Yes.  Was it good delegation? No.  Providing sufficient context to a task also allows the junior lawyer to understand the real world impact of their task, which will often provide motivation and build a better team mentality.

As you might have been able to tell, I’m all for proper delegation.  Done well it has nothing but benefits, in my view.  Normally the people who don’t or won’t are those who haven’t taken the time to consider how to do it well.  Delegation doesn’t mean you absolve yourself of responsibility – it means you amplify your productivity through teamwork with others.

Happy Lawyering!

  • Thanks for sharing Chris. I agree that this is something attorneys struggle with. When I talk to attorneys about this issue is the “every time I assign it they stuff it up” example you give. What’s interesting is that I’ve consulted with several attorneys who want to grow their practice but refuse to delegate. I find it a paradox given that more business, by definition, means having to get help. Great article.

  • I like the information contained in this article, and it has been of much help considering I am about to participate in an environment where delegation is a common practice. It has given me much insight into what to expect (as the junior lawyer) and what to consider in the future should I be blessed to be in a capacity to delegate. Above all, the tone is simple and easy to understand. Thank you Chris!

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