To delegate or not to delegate – that is the question

By Kim Tasso

During the recession, legal teams were cut down to the bone and senior lawyers had to get used to doing much of the work that they had previously passed down to more junior staff themselves.

The trouble is, once a habit is formed it is hard to break. So now the market is recovering and firms are “staffing up” by recruiting new assistants or pushing them up through the ranks. But these assistants often find themselves without work – as the seniors are continuing to do it all themselves.

As a result of this work-hogging, a couple of firms asked me to help them with delegation training. I tried to explain that whilst I was happy to help them, there actually wasn’t much to the theory and process of effective delegation – even in the most complex areas of law. There are simple steps to decide when and what to delegate, to whom and how. The complicating factor is usually behavioural and cultural.

Let me explain. It is common sense for a partner to pass on the work to an associate where appropriate. The firm uses its leverage and can do the work more profitably whilst releasing the partner for business development activities. The client wins as the work is done at a level that is cheaper than a partner. The associate receives work that enables him or her to develop and practice their skills and make a contribution to the firm and the client.

However, there are lots of reasons why partners don’t delegate. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons that I often discover:

  • Fear – For those partners who are not skilled or motivated to go out and win new work they may be afraid that if they delegate work to their juniors then they will not be able to generate more work themselves. This leaves them vulnerable when their recorded hours are low. This is not to be tolerated and training or coaching for the partners – or a revised reward system – is the solution.
  • Protectionism – Some partners believe that their clients will only want them to do the work. This may be true if they have particular knowledge of the client’s business or preferences, although they really should be sharing that knowledge with the team. There’s built in succession then too.
  • Sinatra – Old habits die hard. Some partners insist that the work must be done exactly the way they have always done it and more staff may take a different approach – perhaps using the new technology that the Sinatras haven’t yet got to grips with. The key is to focus on the right end result rather than the route.
  • Distrust – Partners may not feel that the juniors are up to the job or can’t be trusted to treat the client well. This may indicate a recruitment or training issue but the partner is paying their salaries and so ought to deal with the situation rather than avoid it and let it fester. Often, better team communication can solve this issue.
  • Busy – When partners are under pressure it is tempting for them to do the work themselves rather than take more time to explain it to a junior, monitor their progress and do the necessary checks. However, they are only likely to get busier until they break or mess up so they must set aside the time to get the team up to speed so that the load can be shared.

Read my blog on the top five tips for effective delegation.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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