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June 04, 2013 Articles

Delegate for Success

By Nan E. Joesten, Esq.

One of the biggest challenges lawyers face is making the leap from being able to lead one or two teams successfully to guiding a much larger group. Several of the midcareer attorneys I coach have said that they are struggling to expand their practice or role because what they do “is not scalable.” Translated, they mean that while they have mastered the ability to lead the teams working on their cases or projects, they don’t have any more bandwidth for new clients, or new leadership opportunities, or even expanded rainmaking. When I ask how they have risen to their current positions as law firm partners or senior in-house counsel, they attribute their success to being able to devise winning legal strategies and keep on top of the workflow in each of their matters, and to closely managing the more junior attorneys and support staff doing the majority of the hands-on research, drafting, and organizing.

These ambitious, talented attorneys are not senior rainmakers in their firms, or general counsels in-house, yet they want to rise to those levels. Because they believe their success has been based on managing every detail of every case or project, and personally making the right decisions on those matters every day, they don’t see a path forward to having a bigger book of business or larger scope of responsibility because they don’t have room to take on more. And how could they, when their attention to detail is so sweeping? If every matter requires hands-on attention at a very detailed level, it doesn’t take long for an attorney to be at full capacity—and understandably so.

Yet, in every organization there are people able to handle more and more responsibility—more cases for the same client, or new clients, or an expanded leadership role, whether in-house or as outside counsel. How do they do it if they’re not able to personally make every decision or memorize every detail? The key is effective delegation. Corporate managers often master this skill much earlier than do attorneys, who perhaps rely too long on their typical strength of attention to detail. Corporate managers delegate, but attorneys are often personally the repository of all knowledge, and fail to develop a strong, capable team able to work independently, but with proper oversight, on each case or project.

We lawyers can benefit from learning to be better at delegating. This does not mean being a better micromanager of the work that team members are doing! In fact, the dictionary defines “delegating” as “to commit (powers, functions, etc.) to another as agent or deputy.” By effectively delegating specific responsibilities, leaders free up more time to focus on what’s most important, which is how attorneys looking to expand their portfolios should be investing their time. As an added bonus, in addition to gaining more time, effective delegation also contributes to the development of stronger, more engaged team members who themselves appreciate the opportunity for increased responsibility and in turn are more loyal to the leaders who show confidence in them.

An underlying premise of delegation is that you, the manager, have already assessed the risks and complexities of the projects at hand, matched the assignments to the staffing resources available, and established a schedule that allows for sufficient time for any needed review or revisions. That done, the overarching principle for success in delegation is to be crystal clear in what you are delegating, and to have a system in place to hold people accountable. Dr. Relly Nadler of True North Leadership describes a five-point tool to help leaders delegate effectively while simultaneously developing others—an important competency of successful, emotionally intelligent leaders.

  1. What are the desired results? Know what the big picture is, beginning with the end in mind. What do you want to accomplish? What are your key goals, or deliverables? Is it a written, filed brief? The outline of an oral argument for summary judgment? Handling a hearing? Communicating with the client after a key deposition? What is the timeline for completion? What relationship do you have/want with the person doing the work? Once you have that figured out, you can move on to the specifics.
  2. What are your guidelines? Are there limits on how much time or money should be spent on the project? Anything in particular you want the person to do, or just as importantly, not do? When and how often and how do you expect the person to check in? When is the person empowered to make her own decisions and keep you advised, and when must she come to you first with her recommendation, and get the final decision from you?
  3. What resources are available? How many other people can work on the assignment, and for how much time? Is training needed? Anything outside consultants assist with (e.g., trial graphics)?
  4. How will you hold people accountable? What will you use to measure the desired results? How will you know if the people you are delegating to are succeeding? How will they know if they are succeeding? When, where, and how will they be measured? Who else will hold you and your team accountable––the client? The senior partner? Your practice group leader? The general counsel? Others?
  5. What are the positive impacts of success? What new opportunities might flow from delivering results on this project for you, for the individual, and for the team? The chance to get more challenging projects in the future, to be respected as a strong contributor of quality work product by others, to be chosen for advancement within the organization, to be a sought-after leader whom star employees want to work for––these are all possible outcomes. Just as important are the potential negative impacts––not being seen as ready to handle challenging projects, becoming a leader who strong employees don’t want to work with, and being delayed in advancement are all possible repercussions.

Once you are clear on these areas, it is time to sit down with the person or people to whom you intend to delegate responsibility and go over each point in detail. Now is the time to get clear on expectations, play through what-if scenarios, and answer any and all questions so people know what you are counting on them to do, how much freedom they have to get the work done, and how you will all know if the project is successful.

And what about the notion that a great lawyer knows every detail about all of her cases or her department’s projects? It’s not really true. The great leader at every level, lawyers included, personally focuses on only the most important issues and facts, but always knows to whom to turn for the rest of the information, when that becomes necessary to know. When you have delegated effectively, you are well on your way to becoming a great lawyer who is also a great leader—ready and able to take on greater challenges.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, delegation, leadership, professional development