Delegation is a Skill You Need to Learn

Delegation is a Skill You Need to Learn

Are you slightly neurotic, a control freak, a micro-manager, or generally bad at communicating your needs?  Join the club.

Law school engrains into its ranks the fear of horrible hypotheticals, that dozens of catastrophes could happen on the way to the train (think Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.).

Of course it makes sense that when you get out into practice, you might feel a bit like a super hero helping your clients dodge life-changing or threatening bullets.  You start to feel like you are the only one who can serve your client's needs, and that it is IMPERATIVE that you be the one answering calls, emails, and messages ASAP, and be the point person running every phase of your client's case or matter.

You have created a power team of one.  Your clients may love you, your colleagues wonder how you do it, and you just power through.  Fast forward 5 (or 2) years and you will be burning out.

Reality check.  This can be a tough one for some to swallow.  You are just not that important.

What is important is to build a sustainable practice, and a team to service your clients well.  You can't do it alone.

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Some of the things you aren't taught in law school can be the most valuable lessons to a successful lawyer.  Effective communication, delegation, and organization can be the saving grace of a thriving law practice in any area.

Maybe you are fortunate enough to have a dedicated or shared assistant.  Maybe you utilize a virtual assistant, or have more junior associates working with you on a team.  Maybe you are such an amazing rainmaker, that you are delegating cases to colleagues and partners in your firm in other areas.  Regardless of the reason or scenario, you will run into countless ways in which you (and your clients) will greatly benefit from involving others and their skills through effective delegation.

Wish you could leave work on time to coach your kids' game, or long to turn off your crackberry while on "vacation"?  Make it happen.

If you have delegated effectively, and communicated your needs and boundaries to colleagues and clients, then there is literally nothing stopping you.  However, if you have created an island, idolizing yourself as the ONLY solution to your clients', colleagues', or staff members' needs or questions, you have set yourself up for a very different reality.

Especially as a young or new attorney, you may find yourself having practiced law for only fraction of the time the staff members in your office have been working in the legal profession.  It can be daunting to approach working as a team, and learning from one another.  Before going to law school I was a receptionist, assistant, law clerk, and summer associate respectively at 3 different law firms - it is how I put myself through college and law school, and so I have been at many different levels on the delegation chain.  As a young professional navigating these waters myself, here are some lessons I have learned and techniques I am trying to implement in my career.

Start with mutual respect

I try to approach all colleagues and staff that I work with, with automatic respect - it is theirs to lose.

I may not love everything about them, they may make mistakes from time to time, and goodness knows the legal profession is riddled with "quirky" people, but everyone in the office is there to contribute to the team efforts of success and deserves my respect from the start.  On the flip side, I try to act in a way that is worthy of respect.

Change your pattern language & behavior

If you find yourself using language that creates barriers between yourself and others who might help ease your load, become aware of it, and switch it up.  On a particularly busy day are you likely to shut your door to barrel through tasks?  Are you constantly complaining that "I have too much work," "I will never get this response done in time," or "Why ME?" - referring to yourself in the singular makes it clear to others around you that you are on a solo mission.  Flip it around.  Could you instead see yourself asking your assistant the following question: "This response deadline is approaching - can WE brainstorm a way to make sure this gets done in time?"  Now you have a teammate with a common goal.  He or she may have been down this road before and have suggestions regarding the logistics, or even know the court clerk who might be willing to stay late to accept your filing.  Never underestimate the power of spreading the weight from your shoulders.

People like to feel like they are pitching in, rather than walking on eggshells to avoid disrupting your full apple cart.

Let go of some control

A tough lesson for me (and many lawyers) is that by allowing others onto your team, you might need to let go of some of the control of the process.  An associate you work with may be dying to please you and is excited to do last minute research to support your response - but if you are breathing down his neck as he clicks through Westlaw, that is not an effective use of delegation.  Instead, focus on giving clear instructions and expectations, and let the associate contribute in his own way - he will feel more like a valued asset rather than a pawn.  If time permits, debriefing on the process he used, and offering feedback can increase your trust in him for future involvement.

Listen to the needs of your teammates

If you desire a certain process that is just not possible, or create a longer system than is necessary, you are not doing anyone favors.  Communicating to those you work with that you are open to comments and feedback can allow them to also express their needs.  If you have created a mailing to go out to all of your clients announcing your latest publication in a journal, and try to dictate how it goes out, your assistant may be frustrated that you are making it harder than the mail merge system she prefers that would get the same result.  However, if you are closed off to accepting suggestions she may not point out the much simpler system already in place.

Pitch in when the going gets tough

If you see a junior associate or staff member floundering to get something done - recognize that the street goes both ways.  OK, so maybe you feel like dropping the mail off at the post office on your way out is below your pay grade, but if your assistant is working on a major closing for another attorney and is panicked, offer to take something small off her plate.

You should KNOW how to enter your own time, type your own letters, manage your documents, and do basically everything else that you usually delegate.  In a pinch, you should be able to take over without crippling your workflow.

Define tasks & results, and assign to members of the team

Make sure that a task is clear enough in your own head to delegate it.  Maybe you just have the goal or result in mind, so talk it through with whoever you are involving in to achieve it.  Avoid the inefficiency of sending someone off trying to guess what you want done.  Also, make sure to clarify who is expected to do what.  If you are in a meeting with 3 others, make sure 2 of the members don't think something is on their plate if it is just a one person job.

Be mindful of abilities and resources/training needed

Not everyone has the same strengths.  If your paralegal has not had training to support your personal injury practice, she will be grasping at straws to meet your requests.  If an area of knowledge is needed to support you, take the time to invest in training, or at the least encourage attendance at on point CLEs or webinars.

Explain reasoning and be open to brainstorming

Here is a challenge next time you are delegating: Clearly state the desired result, suggest one approach you see for achieving it, and then leave the floor open for others to offer suggestions.

You may come across a better or different solution, or be presented two different tactics to try simultaneously and compare for efficiency.  A team member is more likely to take pride in a project they are seeing through beginning to end, and even made a suggestion or decision on.  If someone suggests an approach that is not 100% on par with what you would suggest (maybe 95%), consider giving it a chance - they may be so passionate about it they will work twice as hard than if you had just told them what to do.

Agree to deadlines

Often times in the legal profession, deadlines are dictated by court deadlines, closing dates, or client demands.  Use good management practice to add in a small buffer so you can meet deadlines even if glitches arise, but beware setting arbitrary deadlines.  If team members feel you are setting unreasonably short deadlines without reason, they may resent the added pressure.  Once a deadline is agreed to however, make sure team members are accountable and check-in before to see how things are going.

Offer feedback on results

Practicing attorneys are notorious for not giving feedback.  As a summer associated and new associate, it can be like pulling teeth to find out from supervising partners what they think of your work.  When you are on the other side, try to change that.  DON'T let those who work for you wonder how they are doing.  Inherently, most individuals want to do well at their job, and want to be respected among their peers.  By getting into a regular habit of debriefing after a goal has been met (or not met), and identifying learning experiences, the next round with your teammates will go that much more smoothly.  Taking a half hour (even if not billable) to meet with all members who contributed to a result will never be wasted time.

Create and adapt systems to support the success of the team

Systems may involve technology, workflow tracking systems, project management resources, or any tweaks or resources that could make it more efficient for each member to get their job completed.  Note however that this doesn't necessarily mean making things easier for the sake of it being easier. Efficiency is the goal here.

Be a real person, and thank profusely

I make a point of thanking my support staff at the end of every day.  My success, in great part, depends on their commitment to making me look good.  Every day I am thankful to have the opportunity to work with them.  On days that a mistake has really frustrated you, this can be a good challenge to you. I also make a point of offering to grab staff members coffee when I am heading out to grab mid-day java.  When I was an assistant, I always appreciated the offer, and repaying the favors I was given, if someone takes me up on it I am happy to treat.

Chelsea Callanan is the founder of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals.  Mrs. Callanan is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.