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Delegating Done Right: Context Is Key

By Steven Taylor

You’re overbooked, overworked and overwhelmed. You need help from an associate or two, or perhaps a team of lawyers. You need to delegate.

Clearly, delegation falls more into the category of art than of science. No hard and fast rules dictate how to delegate work, authority and responsibility because the people on either end of the act are unique, with their own personalities and work styles. What’s more, while delegation and chains of command are common, and even natural, in the corporate world, law firms are … different. Lawyers tend to want to do it themselves, for one. Smart ones, however, learn to overcome that tendency.

“I’m a big fan of delegation—even though I’m a control freak,” says John Langan, managing partner of Hiscock & Barclay in Syracuse, NY. “Delegation is an important part of trying to leverage the skill set of your practice beyond just whatever you can do. Of course, often you think it’s a lot easier to do it yourself. Sometimes, though, it’s more effective—and in fact essential—to assign a task.”

It’s also critical to explain the context of that assignment. “You need to tell why you want to the work done, and what you hope to achieve,” Langan says. “Half the time you delegate talented people to perform something, they’ll do it well. But, if they know the context, those talented people might also find a new way to do it and the results will be even better.”

Here are a few other things to keep in mind when delegating:

  • Assign the responsibility in person, if possible, especially if it’s the first time working with someone. “There’s no substitute for face-to-face delegation,” Langan says. “You can read the body language of that person and make sure he or she is comfortable with what you’re assigning.”
  • Be clear, using language that’s simple and to the point. Rehearse what you’re going to say, even if you only do it in your mind.
  • State your deadline and explain the importance of meeting it.
  • Close the loop! You need to articulate the process by which you will know that the task has been completed. “If you don’t send me an e-mail or call to let me know the work is done, then I have to worry about it,” Langan says. “Closing the loop is very important.”

Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning journalist living in Portland, Oregon, who has written about the legal profession for more than 15 years.

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Categories: Daily Dispatch, Law Firm People Management, Lawyer Time Management, Workstyles
Originally published December 6, 2010
Last updated February 10, 2011
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Steven Taylor

Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning journalist living in Portland, Oregon, who has written about the legal profession for more than 15 years. He’s also had more than 750 editorials, essays and other works published by more than 60 organizations and publications, including The Nation, The Washington Post, Public Citizen, ABA Law Practice and Of Counsel. He is a full professor at Oregon College of Art and Craft, where he teaches non-fiction writing, and a performance artist who explores socio-political issues in a medium he calls “journalistic theater.”

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