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Delegation Skills

Three Steps to Effective Delegation: What, Who and How

By Yuliya LaRoe

There are three important steps to delegate legal work effectively: 1) Determine what, 2) Decide who, and 3) Get clear on how.

delegate effectively

Julia is a star senior associate and soon-to-be partner. She knows that to continue succeeding at her firm, she needs to delegate more work to junior associates and staff. But how? She simply doesn’t think she can trust others to do a quality job. After all, her mantra “If you want anything done right, do it yourself!” has served her well. And the few times she has delegated work, she’s had to redo everything herself.

“What’s the point?” she argues. “Delegating is just going to cost me more time and money.”

Many lawyers have the same attitude when it comes to delegating work to others. But the truly successful lawyers overcome this and figure out how to delegate effectively. Why? Because they know that not delegating can result in:

  • Eroded trust, low morale and disempowered team members.
  • Diminished productivity for both their team members and the lawyer.
  1. Determine what.
  2. Decide who.
  3. Get clear on how.

Step 1. Determining What You Can Delegate Effectively

Often, lawyers say they’d love to delegate more work but it’s just too complex or too important to be delegated. While there is plenty of both in any given legal matter, not everything is as complex and important as it might seem at first. The following “What” Delegation Matrix will help you analyze whether a particular piece of work can be delegated effectively.

Using the matrix,  assess the work you are considering delegating based on:

  1. The work’s complexity, which means the level of difficulty and the experience required to produce a quality result.
  2. The work’s importance, which means the potential impact the work can have on the outcome of the case, the client, you or the firm.

Quadrant A: Low Complexity and Low Importance

This is a slam dunk! This work should be delegated.

Examples: Administrative tasks (such as organizing files, getting docket updates and so on); routine project management tasks; data gathering on the opposing party and their attorneys. (We are using litigation as an example, but the same reasoning applies to transactional practices.)

Quadrant B: Delegating by Low Complexity and High Importance

This type of work can be delegated effectively with an appropriate amount of guidance. The person you are delegating to needs to understand the importance of the task and the impact this work may have on the rest of the matter or project.

Examples: Drafting standard complaints and answers; routine answers to interrogatories or requests for admission; document review; performing more important project management tasks (creating and maintaining various tracking charts, client status update matrices, etc.); proofreading motions prior to filing.

Quadrant C: High Complexity and Low Importance

There may be a limited number of things you consider to be highly complex and lower in importance compared with other things. Nevertheless, even the most complex pieces of work can be broken down into less complex components or stages. Spend some time analyzing whether some aspects of the work can be broken down into less complex tasks that can be delegated to others. Yes, it will take time to do, but from a strategic perspective, it will be a high-impact activity and time well spent. (More on that later.)

Examples: Drafting the statement of facts and procedural history sections of the Memorandum of Points and Authorities.

Quadrant D: High Complexity and High Importance

This is the work you keep, assuming you already analyzed it to determine whether there are any components of it that are less complex or less important, which can be delegated.

Example: Developing a litigation defense strategy.

Now that you know what you are delegating, the next step is to determine to whom you should delegate the work.

What Can You Delegate Effectively Step 2

Step 2. Deciding to Whom You’ll Delegate

As a general rule, you should delegate work to the available team member (junior associate, paralegal) with the appropriate billing rate who is available and competent to do the work. But since time is a critical resource for any lawyer, a key question to answer is how much supervision or support the person will require.

To that end, the “Who” Delegation Matrix below will help you determine the best person for the job. Here you are assessing the person to whom you are considering delegating the work based on:

  1. Their capabilities or skill level, which means the individual’s experience and ability to handle the task effectively and produce a quality result.
  2. Both their level of motivation and yours, which means the individual’s desire to handle the work and your desire to entrust the work to them.

Quadrant I: How to Delegate for Low Capability and Low Motivation

While someone who doesn’t possess the skill set or the interest in taking on the work can seem like a poor choice, this is often a signal that something more serious is going on. Use delegation as an opportunity to understand what might be affecting this person’s level of motivation and explore professional development needs. In other words, don’t let their current state prevent you from investing in developing their talent. Have an honest conversation with the associate or bring in your firm’s talent development professionals to help.

Quadrant II: How to Delegate for Low Capability and High Motivation

This individual is willing to take on the work and will most likely be eager to learn. Depending on how time-sensitive your assignment is, they might be a great candidate for delegation. It all depends on your level of motivation and willingness to invest time in guiding, coaching and supervising them. When deciding, keep in mind that the next time a similar task or project comes up, you’ll be able to delegate with confidence.

Quadrant III: High Capability and Low Motivation

With this individual, you have a chance to use your talent retention strategies! Anytime you see a capable, experienced lawyer feeling unmotivated or disengaged, you want to jump on the opportunity to uncover the reason for their current state. Perhaps they have too much to do and are feeling overwhelmed. Maybe something is going on outside of work, or they feel disconnected from their passion. Whatever the reason, don’t let their seemingly low motivation prevent you from getting them involved.

Alternatively, the individual could be the perfect candidate to train someone else. So think of someone in Quadrant II they can work with. This pairing uses their talent and saves you time. Again, consider engaging your talent development team to support you and the attorney.

Quadrant IV: High Capability and High Motivation

The person you’re considering is both capable of performing the task and quite willing to take it on. Plus, you most likely feel confident in entrusting the task to them. Therefore your level of motivation is high, too. Your job here is simple — delegate.

delegate effectively

Step 3. Specifying How You Want the Work Done

Now that you are clear on what task you want to delegate and the person you are delegating it to, you are ready to delegate the work. And this is where most lawyers make mistakes. They rush through the process of explaining the task. Likewise, they fail to set clear deliverables or confirm expectations, or avoid holding others accountable.

To delegate legal work like a pro, you want to assess several things first.

Provide Clear Guidance on How to Complete the Assignment Successfully

To ensure that your delegation produces a high-quality product, answer the following questions:

  • Is there sufficient time for this person to complete the work you are delegating?
  • Are your instructions clear about what needs to be done? Have you clearly articulated those instructions?
  • Have you given the delegatee a chance to ask questions? (Tip: If your team members are not asking questions, assess whether you have created an environment where they can ask questions without feeling “stupid” or intimidated.)
  • Have you provided context to help the individual understand how this assignment fits into the large scheme and why it’s important? (Tip: This is a fantastic motivational tool.)
  • What are the major stages to completing the work, if any?
  • Do you want any progress reports? How frequently and in what format?
  • Are there other people involved? Do they need to be kept updated?
  • How do you want the result to be delivered? A fully drafted motion? A rough draft? In a document file? A spreadsheet? Email?
  • Is the deadline clear? “As soon as possible” is too vague. “End of the week” is better, but still vague. “Thursday afternoon” is even better. “Thursday before 5 p.m.” is best.

A Note About Time

When it comes to delegating, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “it’ll be much quicker if I just do it myself.” Though this may be so in the short term, in the long run, you are short-changing yourself.

Investing your time now to effectively delegate the work to others is a high-impact strategic activity that can save you time:

  • It leaves you with fewer items to handle now, which can save time in the short term.
  • More importantly, you are teaching and developing others, which will save a lot more time in the long run.

Once You Learn to Delegate Effectively

For many lawyers, delegation can seem like an impossible task. Using these steps will help you be more strategic and, thus, more effective. The end result: You will be able to free yourself up to tackle the most valuable work, thereby growing your practice, advancing your legal career, and developing others along the way.

Happy (effective) delegating!

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

For more on honing your delegation skills …

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Yuliya LaRoe Yuliya LaRoe

Yuliya LaRoe is the president of LeadWise Group, an award-winning management consulting firm for the legal industry. For over a decade, her mission has been to help lawyers and leaders in law firms, in-house legal departments, and law schools to successfully manage their most critical issues: Strategy;Talent; Leadership; and  Business Development. To get in touch with Yuliya, email her at.ylaroe@leadwisegroup.comcom and follow her @YuliyaLaRoe.

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