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Advice for the reluctant delegator

December 22, 2014

Are you a reluctant delegator?

  • You have tried delegating and have been let down time and time again.
  • You have found that no one does the work as well as you, or the way you want it done.
  • You have concluded that it is just faster and easier to do it yourself.
  • Or by the time you figure out that something could have been delegated it is too late.

On a scale of one to ten, one being you have never delegated a thing in your life, and ten being you are a star delegator, how would you rate yourself?

This article is for everyone who rates at a six or under. And if you are in that enviable category of seven or higher please read on as this article will celebrate your accomplishments.

I am not going to waste any ink on making the case for delegation. Dan Pinnington has already handled that ably in his May 2014 article for Slaw. In addition to Dan’s points I will simply add that there is no better way for a lawyer to hone leadership abilities than through delegation. If you want better law firm leaders, than get more of your legal team polishing their delegation skills.

Delegation is where personal leadership skills are put to the test. Becoming an effective delegator gives you the opportunity to do the personal development work that won’t just make you a better delegator, but a better lawyer, a better mentor, and a better leader.

Here are five leadership attributes that are honed when you learn to delegate effectively:

  1. Integrity: You treat others as you would like to be treated, respectfully and honestly.
  2. Communication: You don’t cut corners on communication. You take time to explain details effectively. You keep people informed about what is going on.
  3. Feedback: You know how to give both positive and constructive feedback that is meaningful and can help a person develop.
  4. Leadership under duress: When things go sideways you can talk yourself down from the ledge and take positive corrective action. In fact you built in time just in case something went wrong.
  5. Planning: You have routines in place that keep you organized. Your reserve time for thinking ahead and planning for what is coming. You don’t create emergencies because of poor organization and bad planning.

You aren’t born with these attributes, they don’t just happen. They come from focus, effort, and practice. And delegation is the big old gymnasium where you get to work on them.

The first step is to examine what is currently getting in your way. Here are some of the common roadblocks to delegation, recognize any?

  • It will take too much time to show someone how to do this, I am better off doing it myself.
  • They won’t do it as well as I will.
  • It’s my responsibility.
  • I am embarrassed about the state of the file, I don’t want to have to show it to anyone.

What these all have in common is that they are thinking traps. As I coach I will tell you that the key to making positive change is in starting with investigating your thoughts:

Thought: It will take too much time.

Rebuttal: Delegation does take time but in the not so long run it creates capacity in a legal practice and allows you to do the more interesting and challenging work.

Thought: They won’t do it as well as I will.

Rebuttal: Not everything requires the ability of someone at my year of call. I will review it and ensure that it is done well.

Thought: It’s my responsibility.

Rebuttal: Yes, to see that the client doesn’t pay more than need be for the work. And to be responsible for helping lawyers in my office grow and develop.

Thought: I am embarrassed about the state of the file.

Rebuttal: Oh well, it’s not the end of the world. I am not perfect and am not going to pretend to be.

Remember not to believe everything you think! To start delegating pay attention to your thoughts. How are they blocking you? Investigate them and shift your thinking to make it possible for you to delegate.

There is one additional common obstacle which you might run into:

  • I have left this to the last minute and now there isn’t enough time to delegate it.

In many cases this is a fact, plain and simple. If this is your challenge than the starting point is to introduce some regular planning sessions into your practice as you will read below.

To improve at delegation follow this simple checklist:

Plan. Take a few minutes daily to see what work is coming up in the week and month ahead and decide what can be delegated.

Prioritize. Make delegation the first priority each morning.

Communicate: Meet in-person (if possible) with the delegatee. Walk them through the assignment. Provide the larger context.

Check: Check on the delgatee’s workload. If they appear hesitant and use words such as “try” or “I think I can” seek out more information. This will help surface any unspoken issues and help you strategize with them on how they can ensure they meet the timeline.

Clarify: Ask the delegatee to repeat back what you have told them. Explain this is not to test them but to ensure you haven’t left out something important. If the person seems unsure then you can either have them email you with the instructions in writing, or you can email them.

Schedule: Schedule a check-in with the delegatee. This is a chance for them to ask questions and share drafts with you at the early stage.

Clear Timelines: Provide clear timelines and explain them. If plans change and more time presents itself, let them know.

Follow Up: Follow-up with the delegatee before the assignment is due to check on progress.

Feedback: The last step in the delegation process is to provide feedback about what was good about the work they did, what changes you made to the document and why, and what happened next with the project.

Give thanks: Include a thank you for the delegatee’s efforts and contributions at the end of the assignment. It will go a long way.

And by the way, things will at times go sideways. You will train up a great junior and they will leave the firm. You will get something back late and in bad shape. The key is to keep your eye on the big picture. Have a word with yourself. Don’t let yourself be derailed by a setback. Remember your goals and why they are important. Persevere. When you are a good delegator you will find that juniors like to work with you and will be available to help when you need them.

(This article was originally published on Slaw.ca December 4, 2014.)

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The fine art of delegation

July 25, 2007

Delegation is one of those soft skills that when mastered will have a major impact on your profitability, quality of work, and overall success as a lawyer. The hitch is that like so many of these essential skills, it’s not taught in law school, and is generally not on the CLE curriculum.

This week I met with Adam Pekarsky, Director of Professional Development and Recruitment at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP (FMC). Pekarsky is great to speak to about soft skills like delegation. He is a former securities lawyer who discovered he had a passion for training and development. He gets excited about stuff like delegation, much like a senior litigator talking about his most recent court appearance. Pekarsky’s associate training program at FMC includes a seminar on the art of delegation. Over coffee he shared the highlights with me.

Delegation from 20,000 feet.

Pekarsky started by giving me the big picture: “It’s all about leverage”.

Law is a business. There are revenues and expenses. Partners are the biggest users of overhead. They have bigger offices, use more support staff, and more resources than associates. They also have much higher rates and can generate considerably more income. Pekarsky likened them to expensive race cars. If partners don’t delegate the lower level work then it’s like “driving a formula one race car around a Safeway parking lot”.

Delegating work to others is known as spin, as in “how much work did you spin down to the associates this year?”

Really successful partners keep the high quality work for themselves and spin the rest to others. They meet their billable targets as well as generating considerable spin. Pekarsky gave the example of a partner who bills a million dollars and no spin vs. a partner who bills 700,000 dollars and spins an addition million. It’s much better for a firm’s profitability (not to mention the lawyer’s lifestyle) to bill less and spin more. And Pekarsky added, the savvy compensation committees will reward partners accordingly.

What are the other rewards of spin?

Interesting work. A lawyer who spins down the work, keeps the most interesting, highly paid work for his/herself.

Making more money. The lawyer who spins doesn’t have to write down bills and gets paid at a higher rate.

Given the advantages, why wouldn’t a lawyer delegate?

One reason lawyers don’t delegate is they don’t have enough work. They might need to hold onto every piece of work in order to meet their billable targets. But when a partner is doing all the work, including the low level stuff, it means that he/she is going to have to reduce the fees. As a result their effective billing rate lowers and they have to work more hours to hit their target.  They would be better off spinning work to juniors and investing some non-billable time on marketing and business development to bring more work in the door.

Another reason is that the lawyer may have picked up the bad habit as an associate watching other lawyers at the firm. Many firms have chronic hoarders, and they set a bad example.

When is it best for associates to begin delegating?

As an associate you are ready to spin work when you are at the level where you have some experience under your belt and there’s legal work that you have done twenty times and don’t really need to do again.

Pekarsky divided delegation into two types, healthy and unhealthy.

Heathly delegation is:

  • Well intended. You want to pass on a piece of work to a junior who will have a chance to learn something new.
  • Based on experience. You have done this type of work many times previously and no longer have anything to learn from it.

Unhealthy delegation is:

  • Getting rid of a dog file. This is when you have a tough file that you are struggling with and instead of working through the issues you just pass it to someone else.
  • I’ve never done it and don’t want to. You pass some work on that you have never done yourself.

To illustrate Pekarsky offered a quote from his drama instructor at Brentwood College:

“You can’t act on a stage unless you’ve swept it.”

Or in other words don’t delegate your dirty work to subordinates and hit the golf course. Don’t unload your dog files.

What can get in the way?

Here are some of the common objections to delegation:

“I can’t delegate because it takes too much time. It’s faster if I do it myself.”

That’s true, the first time. But the second, third, tenth, thirty-eighth times, it’s faster. And by delegating you will get to spend more time on interesting work at your top billable hour. If you don’t delegate you are going to get stuck in the trenches working even longer hours for a lousy effective rate.

Another common objection is:

“I don’t trust a junior to do the work as well as I can.”

Pekarsky’s response, “drop your ego.” Successful people surround themselves with talent. Your challenge is to help develop the juniors so that they do the work as well if not better than you do.

Closing thoughts¦

Delegation is one of the lawyer behaviors that need to be rewarded by compensation committees. For a law firm to be most profitable partners are required to spin work down to juniors. Savvy compensation committees look at the combination of billable hours and spin earnings when allocating partner income.

For associates, delegation is one skill to start practicing early. Share the work that has become routine with the juniors. Reach for work that is challenging.

Spin your way to more interesting work for better money. Get out of the parking lot and onto Route 66.

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