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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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The Rainmaker Turn Off

May 31, 2007

I was chatting with a lawyer friend over breakfast this morning and she recalled for me, with a shudder, a business development torture session from her days as a first year securities lawyer.  She was told to attend a basketball game with a group of stockbrokers.  I can’t stand basketball, and the stockbrokers were appalling.  I couldn’t understand why I was there.  All I got out of the experience was being asked out on a date that I didn’t want to go on.

What was wrong with this picture?

Alignment.  Business development is effective when the lawyer’s goals, values, interests, and strengths are in alignment with the business development activity.  In my friend’s case there was no fit beyond the fact that she was a securities lawyer and those were securities clients.  This was a case of the classic rainmaker turn off.

One associates basketball horror story would be another’s great night at the game.

Sometimes you get just one chance.

So often when we are introducing marketing and business development to associates we really only get one chance.  As soon as you make the mistake of sending the wrong person to the basketball game you are sending a powerful message to that lawyer.  The message they get is:

Business development is a painful and useless activity.
 This is not me.
I don’t do this.

Business development becomes something other people do.

Values are important.  I have found that the clearest statements on personal values come from lawyers when you are trying to get them to do some business development activity that is in conflict with their values.

For example, one associate told me he couldn’t stand going to a particular industry networking event.  There always seemed to be more lawyers than potential clients and it appeared to him that the non-lawyers in the room were surrounded by a pack of lawyers with carefully prepared elevator speeches and business cards at the ready.

So does this mean this associate is not a rainmaker?  Does it mean that he is going to have to get over his inhibitions and jump into the fray?

No.  In further conversation it became apparent that he values relationships.  He values sincerity.  He is truly interested in the industry and is interested in getting meaningfully involved.  It’s simply a question of developing opportunities for him to meet with people from the industry that support his own further education and give him a chance to interact with the potential clients in a different setting.  We found just the thing for him but as it is still in progress I can’t reveal more!

All of this is to say that there are many different paths to business development. 

One partner I know in Victoria got involved in a cooperative daycare program when she had her first child. She got to know all the parents, contributed her one day a week at the centre, and no surprise, the parents who chose to trust their children to her care naturally decided to trust her to handle their legal affairs as well. 

There are as many unique paths to developing business as there are individuals.  The key is to support lawyers in building an approach to business development that aligns with their own goals, distinct skills, interests, and values.

Ban meaningless acts of business development.  If it turns your stomach or makes your skin crawl you know that it is not for you.  Instead, discover what is for you, and set it in motion.

Posted in: Business Development, Marketing, Training and Retention | Permalink | No Comments →

Law Firm Life

April 2, 2007

The Lawyers Weekly has launched a new column in the business section that explores life inside the firm. Last week the focus was on Bull, Housser & Tupper an old Vancouver firm with some new approaches to management.  The firm has been ranked as one of the best workplaces in BC by a local business magazine the last two years running, which left many of us scratching our heads and wondering what was going on at BHT?  Best places to work?  A law firm?

Yes, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. 

To poach from Beverly Cramp’s article here are some of the goings on up there on the 30th floor of the Royal Bank Tower:

  • Job sharing for staff members.  Working mom’s sharing a job during the early years of parenting. 
  • Impromptu gatherings of staff and lawyers (triggered by invitations over the internet) grouse grinding together, playing basketball, and other such sporting activities.
  • Meet and greets for staff members from different parts of the office.
  • Mentors for new staff members.
  • A health and wellness program featuring lunch time seminars and fitness subsidies.

The demand for qualified legal support staff has never been higher.  Law firms all over the country are paying increasing attention not just to associate benefits, but also to the perks that will keep talented support staff in the firm, and out of the recruiter’s office.

Harper Grey LLP, a litigation firm in Vancouver, has also launched a number of similar programs for their staff including fitness subsidies, lunch and learns, healthy food in the coffee rooms, walking groups, and flexible work hours for staff.  Most noteworthy, the firm held a staff survey to determine the areas where improvements could be made.  In a legal market where law firms are still reluctant to survey their clients this has to be counted as a bold step!  The result has translated into strong retention rates and high firm morale.

Kudos to the Human Resources Directors and the Managing Partners who support them, for taking action to make our law firms places where we can feel good about going to work.

Posted in: Training and Retention | Permalink | No Comments →

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