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January 31, 2023

Lawyers’ Top Concerns When Delegating Work and How to Deal with Them

Everyone knows you can increase your productivity as an attorney when you delegate tasks effectively. The key word here is effectively – meaning the right tasks in the right volume to the right people and in the right way. Yes, that’s a high bar. If you delegate tasks and then spend excessive time worrying, supervising, reviewing, and revising the work – or you rarely delegate tasks and activities that you should be delegating because of negative past experience – then you’ve just decreased your productivity.

This holds true for both legal work on cases and administrative work in support of your individual practice or the client teams/practice groups for which you’re responsible.  In this article, we’re focusing on legal work.  We’ll tackle best practices for delegating non-legal work in an upcoming post.

So what to do? How can lawyers manage the concerns they have about delegating legal work? To answer the question, it is helpful to start by looking at those concerns and the factors that underlie them.

Concern Number One: The Work is Too Complex to Delegate

This concern is one of the most common, possibly because it actually involves two potential problems. Work can be deemed too complex to hand off to others because of its inherent difficulty or because an attorney has worked on the matter for so long that it would take someone else “too long” to get up to speed on the situation. Let’s address the latter issue first.

Taking time to explain the complexities of a task to be delegated may not seem worth the effort, but unless the situation is entirely unique or the matter is just about to conclude, and there is no possibility of ever dealing with that client or a similar concern again, then it is worth taking that time. In the process, you are training your associate or paralegal to handle not only issues related to this matter but also similar tasks in the future. In many cases, you will have material on hand that the person can review on their own, and then you can meet to clarify finer points. It may be that the most efficient solution would be to delegate certain smaller tasks that do not require as much explanation or understanding of the detailed facts.

Concern Number Two: The Work is too Difficult to Delegate

Many tasks in a given case simply require a greater depth of legal experience than may be available among those on your team.  Fair enough.  But in our experience as time management trainers and coaches, there are almost always instances of work that, with the proper planning, could be delegated. And yes, it’s a judgment call when deciding to invest time. But not every difficult task falls into that extreme category. And if partners do not work with associates in completing these tasks, they will never train a successor.

Even the most challenging tasks can be broken down into less complicated components. The smaller jobs can be delegated. Then you can work together to connect the smaller pieces to complete the difficult task. Each time you follow this procedure, you may be able to delegate bigger and bigger chunks of work to your associate until both of you feel confident in delegating an entire task. You can review matters periodically to ensure the work is up to your standards, but you have empowered your associate and freed yourself up to manage the big picture.

Concern Number Three: The Work is Too Important

Tasks that fall into this category may be the most difficult to delegate. When so much is on the line, it can be hard to trust anyone else to handle the job, even if it is an easy one.

When a task is simple, you can delegate that task as long as you make sure the person to whom you delegate it understands the importance. Let them know that it is worth an extra review and careful scrutiny. Delegate important tasks only to staff that you can trust unless you have the time to review the results yourself before moving forward.

When an important task is also a complex task, it may be best to only delegate part of the job or to work in stages, reviewing the output at each stage and providing regular feedback about both the aspects that were handled well and the areas that could be improved.

Concern Number Four: The Staff Member Doesn’t Seem to Want to Learn Something New

If you are reluctant to delegate in the first place, it can be nearly impossible to delegate anything to an attorney, paralegal, or other staff member who does not seem interested in taking on new work. Sometimes, however, delegation can provide a tool to develop an individual’s talents. 

Take the time to have an honest conversation with this team member and find out whether they are anxious about their ability to perform or distracted by issues in their personal life. The delegated tasks can provide an opportunity for them to develop increased skills and confidence if you provide the right guidance and prompt, specific and supportive feedback.

Concern Number Five: No One Else is Capable of Handling the Job

This is what springs to mind for many attorneys when they consider delegating tasks. This encompasses all the other concerns listed. And it is a trap. As long as you feel that you are the only person who can do the job, you will remain the only person who does the job. Your firm will never expand and when you retire, you will not have a business entity that you can pass along to others. It will end with you.

The bottom line is that you have to train others in your firm to be capable of handling many tasks, and you have to trust that they can perform with competence. When you show that you trust your team and respect their feedback and work product, you increase their commitment and accountability. This produces results that improve their skills and confidence, and it allows your firm to grow and develop.

Cultivating Your Team to Allow for Delegation

Unless you are incredibly lucky, you will need to make an intentional effort to cultivate your team members so that they are prepared for you to delegate more responsibility to them. You will need to take steps to develop, demonstrate and improve their skills. For that, you need to provide regular feedback while an incident is fresh on your mind. I recommend meeting regularly one-on-one with your staff to give feedback that is FAST—frequent, accurate, specific, and timely. It can be difficult to be a trainer and coach for your team as well as an attorney, which is why we offer training to help you so you can become the most effective leader possible for your team. To learn more about the lawyer coaching, productivity, and time management training we provide to help reduce stress and increase effectiveness for law firms, contact the team at Lawyer Time Management today.