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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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 25th, 2007 at 3:32 pm and is filed under Compensation, Delegation, Leadership, Training and Retention. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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