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Delegating Work Effectively: What, How and Who

February 12, 2020 (3 min read)

For solo, small and midsize law firms, work often ebbs and flows. Slow days can be quickly offset by weeks of packed schedules and late nights at the office. And then there are those times where so much work is coming that it seems impossible to keep up.

Those busy-beyond-busy moments are when it becomes clear just how important work delegation is. There are plenty of benefits to delegating work to another attorney or non-lawyer, including a reduction in stress (and potentially an increase in revenue).

But it’s not as easy as snapping your fingers. There are factors that lawyers and firms should consider to ensure they are delegating work effectively.

What to Delegate

From a distance, the process of delegation seems like a simple one. Lawyers with too much on their plates simply scrape enough off to get down to a reasonable portion. That’s an accurate, if crude, analogy. But it also sounds messy—lawyers can get a lot more out of delegation by thoughtfully considering three important factors: what to delegate, how to delegate and who to delegate to.

Before delegating anything, a lawyer must first identify what work they want to unload. And because the need to delegate is greatest when an attorney is busiest, they may be tempted to delegate whatever project they are thinking about at the moment or the one that feels most urgent. That would be a mistake. Instead, an attorney should step back, breathe and inventory the various tasks they must get through.

Once they compile that list, they can make the best decision about what to delegate. This is an intuitive point, but one worth making: when lawyers consider their list, they should reserve for themselves the projects that call on their unique skills, and that hold the greatest value for the client and the law firm.

On the other hand, smaller, less complex projects make the best candidates for delegation. Prioritizing work in this manner means that professionals devote their time to the matters that demand their skill and experience.

How to Delegate

When delegating work, it is helpful to make the process as easy as possible. Therefore, as noted above, lawyers should generally avoid handing off assignments that are on a tight deadline. Ideally, the individual handling an assignment should receive a comfortable amount of time to complete it.

Equally if not more importantly, they should receive the right kind of guidance. That means being clear with instructions, without tipping over into micromanagement. The delegating attorney should aim to create a smooth process where they ensure the work gets done right, but where they aren’t spending too much additional time overseeing the project.

Who to Delegate to

We think of delegation as a tool that benefits the delegator. Done properly however, delegation offers a great benefit to those receiving the work: valuable experience. In fact, when a lot of work comes in the door, delegation creates a win-win-win situation where the firm increases its billings, the delegating attorney frees up time and the recipient of the work gets a chance to expand their capabilities.

But you don’t want to hand work to just anyone. Make sure the person you are delegating to can tackle the assignment. If work is delegated to someone who can’t handle it, there can be many downfalls—including lost cases, lost clients and lost time.

In an ideal world, delegating a project lets the recipient take ownership of a new or emerging area that no one at the firm has encountered before. Many associates have become partners by doing just that.  

Delegate Responsibly

Finally, if an attorney does delegate, they need to supervise the person to whom they handed the work. In fact, the Model Rules of Professional Conduct require it.

Under Rules 5.1 and 5.3, a delegating lawyer must make “reasonable efforts” to have measures in place and work to ensure that the non-lawyer is conducting themselves in a way that is “compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer.” A delegating attorney can be held responsible for the misconduct of a subordinate attorney or a non-lawyer if they know it is occurring and either ratifies it or fails to stop it.

Ultimately, having too much work coming through the door may seem overwhelming at first. But when delegation is done—and handled correctly—everyone can benefit.