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Professional Development

Delegation Is Good for Your Legal Career

Dina Eisenberg


  • Delegation allows you to develop the professional skills you need to advance and to be more efficient while also contributing to happier clients.
Delegation Is Good for Your Legal Career
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If you wonder what is the best way to recession-proof your career and perform at a higher level, learning to delegate is your answer. You will increase your productivity, reduce your stress, and signal your readiness for more strategic work when you delegate more. It’s time to learn to let go and lead.

What Are Outsourcing and Delegation?

Outsourcing is misunderstood. Somehow, the term has gotten a negative connotation that might deter you from using this valuable time management tool. Don’t be fooled.

Outsourcing is a positive activity that can be practiced by simply asking someone else to help you achieve a goal. You probably already outsource many everyday tasks in your personal life. Do you go out to eat? You just outsourced the meal preparation. Do you drop your clothes off at the dry cleaner and allow them to take over the special cleaning for you? That’s outsourcing. (What did people do before dry cleaning, I wonder?) You can and should find ways to outsource everyday tasks in your law practice, too.

Delegation takes the outsourcing process one step further. After you’ve identified that you need help and have chosen the right person to help you (I call that person your talent), you need to tell that person specifically how to assist you. That’s delegation! I often hear lawyers complain that delegation is too time-consuming or that it leads to poor quality outcomes and more “fixing” work for themselves. In most circumstances, these are symptoms of a lawyer’s failure to delegate properly.

Learn How to Delegate Effectively

Most people don’t stop to think about, much less practice, the mechanics of effective delegation. In this way, delegation is like teaching. Many people assume that anyone can do it, but for most people, it’s quite difficult to do well. Happily, even a poor delegator can learn to become an effective delegator by spending some time practicing and fine-tuning his or her own style and technique.

The Five Steps of Delegating

Effective delegation can be thought of as a five-step process combined with an open mind.

  1. Identify the need
  2. Outline the project
  3. Select your talent
  4. Manage the project
  5. Debrief the project

As a lawyer, the temptation to dive right into the details of each step may be strong; however, the importance of mindset cannot be ignored or denied. Do you remember the old computer meme “garbage in, garbage out”? The same applies to your thoughts about delegation. You can’t delegate and expect to get an excellent outcome if you are doing so while filled with skepticism about the process. That doesn’t work. What you can do is communicate clear expectations, prepare your talent for success, and check in on the project periodically so that you can delegate with confidence.

Why Delegate?

It’s natural to feel that delegation is risky or too time-consuming. After all, you can easily do it yourself. Why waste time explaining to someone else?

You become a valuable contributor when you are known for being a skillful delegator who gets things done. Research suggests that top lawyers who regularly delegate earn up to 20 percent more income.

Delegating Demonstrates Your Confidence

You tell others that you know your strengths, weaknesses, and how valuable your time is when you choose to delegate projects more suited to others. That takes confidence.

Delegating Highlights Your Emotional Intelligence

You also demonstrate that you enjoy high social awareness because you are attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of those around you and know best to deploy their attributes.

Delegating Showcases Your Commitment to Client Satisfaction

Today’s legal consumer is savvy and demands more cost efficiency. You show that you know how to leverage your time and maximize value when you delegate.

How to Identify What to Delegate

Many lawyers harbor the false belief that everything needs their personal attention. Not true. Lawyers can greatly increase their bandwidth and avoid burnout by learning to distinguish between projects that require your actual involvement versus your high-level engagement.

Stay Engaged

When delegating a task, it’s important to stay engaged with the project but not involved with the project (i.e., no micromanaging). For larger or more complicated projects and tasks, try setting up checkpoints at agreed-upon times or phases in the project where you will check in with the person you have delegated to. Scheduling checkpoints in advance will allow you to monitor the progress of the project, make yourself available for questions, and support accountability.

Start Small

As a new lawyer, it can be tough to find a task, or even a person, to whom you can delegate. While more seasoned lawyers often have a variety of personnel, paralegals, and new lawyers to delegate to, it can be a struggle for many lawyers to start delegating as their workload and responsibilities are increasing. Taking the time to identify small, low-risk tasks that you can outsource early in your practice—such as having your assistant proofread and mail a letter—will help you develop good delegation habits that will have a snowball effect on your career. You’ll allow yourself to get comfortable with the delegation process and be more prepared to leverage delegation as your duties increase.

How Else Can I Use Delegation?

In addition to thinking about the tasks to delegate, think about how delegation can help you build relationships. You can use delegation in the following ways to connect with colleagues and collaborate—a soft skill that is currently in high demand for lawyers.

It’s a Learning Opportunity

Ask someone junior to assist you. You provide a learning opportunity to upskill others and a chance for you to deepen your knowledge and demonstrate your leadership skills.

It’s a Peer-to-Peer Relationship Builder

Ask a peer to partner with you to build rapport. Law school teaches us to view fellow lawyers as competition. Yet, studies show that collaboration leads to higher margins and increased client retention. Not to mention that it’s nice to know someone has got your back.

How Do You Ensure a Good Result?

You get a good result from delegating by doing what lawyers do best: plan for it. In eight out of ten cases, the reason the results of delegation go sideways is due to user error. The person delegating the task has not been specific in the request or deadline, failed to set expectations regarding the overall outcome, failed to set up “checkpoints” to monitor progress and accuracy, or simply ghosted.

You can ensure a good outcome by taking the time to properly prepare or perform what I call the pre-go phase. Too often, I see lawyers rush to delegate in a state of panic while having little or no preparation. That rush leads to frustration and disappointing results because you haven’t given your talent the proper information. Want a better outcome?

Invest some time up front to prepare a clear, specific job briefing for your talent that outlines the specifics of the project, your expectations, timetable, and the purpose for the work along with your definition of an ideal outcome.

You’ll naturally want to share what to do and how you do it with the talent. However, be open to new ideas and ways to complete a task. Part of the benefit of delegating is discovering another way that may be better than yours.

Communicate anything that you do not want to be done. Be specific and share your rationale. In this way, you’re training your talent to think like you and learn your preferences, thereby improving your satisfaction with the overall outcome and your confidence in delegation.

Be sure to share your end goal and give your talent authority to act so he doesn’t need to return to you for every decision. He will appreciate your trust and work harder for you.

What If I Don’t Like the Result?

Delegation is a process. As you’re learning to be a good delegator, there will be projects where things don’t go as planned. There will be mistakes and misunderstandings. That’s to be expected as you develop good delegation skills and build a working relationship with your talent. So how do you give feedback properly?

First, look at yourself. Is there something that you did (or didn’t do) that lead to a miscommunication or error? It’s so easy to miss something when you are busy. I still have projects that turn out poorly, even after 10 years as an outsourcing expert, because I failed to slow down and focus on the specifics and effectively communicate those specifics.

Second, offer your feedback or criticism in the form of an observation and invite your talent to respond to what you observe.

For example, you ask your paralegal to research a legal issue and return the report to you in three days. You get the report back in three days, but it isn’t as detailed as you want. Here’s how you can position that feedback.

Sue, thanks for doing the research on the Hamachi case. I recall saying that I wanted all relevant case law in our region, and I notice that you gave me research that is different. Can you help me understand that?

This inquiry approach to feedback avoids the drama that we all dread while giving Sue an opportunity to share her perspective or frustrations. Then, together you can decide what to do differently next time you delegate to Sue. People will defend themselves against statements or accusations, but it’s hard to argue about an observation.

Delegation Is Good Business

The bottom line is that delegation is good for business, relationship-building, and for your career. Delegation allows you to develop the professional skills you need to advance and to be more efficient while also contributing to happier clients. Delegate something today!