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Delegating with confidence

“True solo” lawyers who operate without staff support seem to be increasing in number. But for the majority of solo lawyers, there is someone in the office to help them and, of course, most law firms have support staff.

Delegation sounds easy. You get someone else to do something so you don’t have to do it. Some lawyers happily delegate as much as they can.

But some lawyers have difficulties with delegating important tasks to staff.  In some other businesses, when a subordinate is given a task and he or she fails, the consequences happen to the person who failed. The supervisor is normally only responsible for repeated failures of a subordinate (unless it was a task that should not have been delegated at all).

For a lawyer, however, his or her law license and professional judgment are the driving forces behind the business. Any assignment delegated to staff is still the responsibility of the lawyer and the failure of a staff person to properly accomplish a task will be no excuse to a client or disciplinary authority, which might hold a lawyer accountable for poor performance.

In other settings, there are great distinctions between delegation of authority and mere assignment of tasks. But, given the nature of legal services, we are going to treat them the same for the purposes of this article.

Increased delegation to staff

The 21st Century law office should ideally be stocked with more staff members who provide direct client services that produce revenue, rather than staff whose main job is to just support the lawyer.

Simply put, staff should no longer exist to make a lawyer’s personal life easier. You can refill your own coffee while your paralegal is drafting documents that are generating income for the firm.

How can lawyers delegate when most feel in their hearts that no one can accomplish a task better than they can?  The answer lies in developing systems for delegation with accountability and tracking. Nothing is more frustrating to both parties than finding out midway through a project that the staff person is doing the wrong thing.

Some lawyers delegate too little and some too much. The following techniques should help both.

Written assignments

It is somewhat ironic that lawyers, who counsel clients to “get it in writing,” often rely on oral instructions to give important, and often complex, assignments. When lawyers find themselves in time crunches, their impulse is to bring in a staff person and quickly outline verbally numerous things that need to be accomplished, often on a short deadline.

The fact that these instructions are given orally is problematic as it increases the chance of miscommunication, especially if the lawyer is under time pressure. Lawyers should make assignments in written form, such as by e-mail, and always assign deadlines so that the staff can manage their work.

If a lawyer wants to continue to give oral instructions, the staff should be instructed that their first response is to prepare an e-mail to the lawyer outlining what they think they have been told.  They should be empowered to hold off working on the project until the lawyer has agreed that their understanding is correct.

Many lawyers should learn how to use either Outlook or their practice management software to delegate to staff automatically with deadlines. The advantage of using practice management software to accomplish this goal is that the assigned and completed tasks become a part of the digital client file. This provides clear record keeping and makes the staff aware that any deficiencies or delays will be noted in the file.

This does not mean that assignments like “make three copies of this and bring them to me” have to be in writing. But when they get much more complex than that they should be.

Prioritization is key

A common complaint is that law office employees feel overworked. This is pretty easy to understand as lawyers often have a similar complaint. When you have given them several projects with short deadlines, you should advise your staff to approach you with a list or outline of all their other deadlines.

Simply put, a staff person may have sixteen assigned projects in a day where only eight can be completed. It should be the duty of the lawyer or a trusted supervisor to assist the staff with prioritizing and determining which projects deserve the higher priority. The lawyer then has the ability to change an assignment and delegate it to another staff person with a lighter workload.

This is a challenge when a staff person works for more than one lawyer. Assume there will be conflicts and determine in advance how they will be handled, even up to the point of naming a third lawyer in the firm as the referee to resolve disputes.

A staff person who comes to the lawyer for assistance with prioritization should always be welcomed and never treated with a negative response or inference that he or she is trying to avoid work.  You want these lines of communication to remain open so that prioritization is handled effectively.  If negativity is encountered as a staff person earnestly tries to set his or her priorities, the lawyer runs the risk of defeating the process and finding that the most important tasks are left undone.

Here are some final tips:

1) Get over “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” You may do it very well, but you cannot do it all in today’s world.

2) Be patient with the mistakes of others. These will occur in a learning process.

3) Create teams. Lawyers now understand that they cannot handle all areas of substantive law. In larger firms, staff may need to be organized around types of projects rather than serving as personal assistants to lawyers.

4) Acknowledge miserable assignments. Where appropriate, it makes it much more palatable when you say, “I know this is an unpleasant (or very boring) project. But I appreciate you doing it and if it turns out there is some credit for doing it, I’ll make sure you get credit.”

5) Determine when you are delegating the project result only and when you are delegating the step-by-step process. Let people be creative when you can and make clear that every step must be handled in a certain way when you must.

6) If it is a new or significant assignment, do not just accept that it has been done, but allow yourself time to review the work. This is your moment for quality control, not after a pleading has been filed in court or a document transmitted to a client.

7) Say “thank you” if it was a major undertaking. Certainly it is their job, but it is in your personal best interest to be the lawyer that people like to assist.

Jim Calloway is the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog, Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com. He serves on the ABA Law Practice Management Section Council and is also chair of its Practice Management Advisor’s committee.  He is a frequent speaker on law office management and technology issues.