GPSOLO July/August 2007
To Delegate or Not to Delegate, That Is the Question
I’m finding that one of the most critical decisions that I face these days is whether or not I should do something myself or have someone else do it. I know that this fundamental shift in how I live my life will lead me to new capabilities and accomplishments.
I practiced for more than a dozen years as a solo attorney before forming a partnership with two other lawyers just a couple years ago. Old solo habits die hard. As a solo, I did everything. But now I stand in my office with a piece of paper in my hand and I have to decide, "Do I file this or do I call in my assistant to file this?" These are important decisions, ones that will shape the way I do business and live my life. What I do and the extent of my capabilities will be affected by how I structure my work flow and other responsibilities in my life.
This dynamic also extends well beyond my practice of law. All through my adult life I have had an on-again off-again relationship with health clubs. I’d join a health club, work out for a few months, feel good, and then stop attending the club. I’d pay for another six months of membership without using it and then cancel my membership. A couple of years after that I’d rejoin and go through the same process all over again.
Recently I started using a trainer during my workouts, and this has completely changed my workout experience. I didn’t realize that I needed to delegate to someone else my workout routine. I thought that riding a stationary bike, lifting some weights, and using some of the machines would always be enough. The problem was that I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about working out. As the saying goes, it’s what you don’t know you don’t know that can hurt you the most.
With my trainer (a thanks to Lory Beaudoin) I’ve learned what not to do so I don’t injure myself, something that has become more important at age 53 than at 23. I’ve gotten a complete workout that addresses my entire body, including balance and core strengths. When a workout is no longer effective because my body has adapted to it, my trainer knows it and makes it more challenging. What I didn’t know I didn’t know I now know (say that ten times fast).
The Fault, Dear Reader, Is Not in Our Stars, but in Ourselves, That We Do Not Delegate
You have to make decisions in your solo law practice about whether to delegate things to others or do them yourself. If you think that because you don’t have any employees you don’t have to make these decisions, you are wrong. You do make these decisions—every day.
How is that? Just because you do everything yourself, it doesn’t mean that you don’t make decisions about delegation. You simply decide to delegate everything to yourself and not to others, making an employee unnecessary. It’s important to realize this if you ever want to transition away from the "do everything yourself" model of running your solo law practice, which can keep you from a more satisfying and profitable law practice.
Try this exercise and see if this doesn’t open your eyes a bit. First, I want you to imagine that you have a marvelous assistant who will always be there to take work from you. By the way, when the work becomes too much for just one person, this imaginary marvelous assistant splits in two to do it all (would that this were only true).
Now take out a pad and for three days make a list on this pad of all the work you do in your office that can be delegated. Yes, even assume that you can teach another human being how your file system works (doctors learn how to perform brain surgery; surely your file system can’t be that much harder).
Do not wait for the end of the day to make your list, do it as you go through your workday. Catch both the big and the small items. Little items add up, so don’t hesitate to count them.
Once you’ve done this for three days, review your list. Do you see the outline of a job description emerging from your list? If you do, write up a job description and hire someone based upon it. They can be full-time, part-time, or even a summer intern to start.
Budget the cost of this assistant and plan how you will pay for it by billing additional hours instead of playing file clerk or messenger. Also think about what fun things having an assistant will permit you to do, like spending more time with your family or even taking a vacation. This kind of planning will give you more courage to take action—you will not see the hire as an additional expense, but as a tool to earn additional money and lead a more satisfying life.
But, Soft! What Productivity Through Yonder Office Window Breaks?
I still sometimes struggle with delegation. But I find that my assistant can actually file away a stack of papers that I hand her, and she does so in a way that I actually can find them again. And the more I delegate, the more productive I get. By the way, I recommend working out with a trainer to anyone of any age—you’ll feel great!
Now do you want to have some real fun? Make a list of all the things that you do in your personal life that can be delegated to others, and then figure out a way to delegate them. Just don’t tell your spouse that I was the one who gave you the idea.
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. In his spare time he blogs at staringatstrangers.com. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.