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    Career: How Effective Are Your Delegation Skills?

    Lawyers new to management and leadership roles often do not know the importance of delegating work or how to do it. Read about how the skill set you need to delegate effectively.

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 78, No. 11 November 2005

    How Effective Are Your Delegating Skills?

    Lawyers new to management and leadership roles often do not know the importance of delegating work or how to do it. Read about how the skill set you need to delegate effectively.

    by Ellen Ostrow

    "The most difficult change for [new] managers to make ... involves values. Specifically, they need to learn to value managerial work rather than just tolerate it. They must believe that making time for others, planning, coaching and the like are necessary tasks and are their responsibility. More than that, they must view this other-directed work as mission critical to their success." - Ram Charan1

    Ellen OstrowEllen Ostrow, PH.D., is the founder of LawyersLifeCoach LLC, providing personal and career coaching for lawyers. She is editor of the free online newsletter Beyond the Billable Hour. This article is excerpted from Issue #39, Part 2 of the newsletter.

    REGARDLESS of the size of your firm or other organization, you've probably grappled with questions about how best to delegate work. This is especially challenging for lawyers new to management/leadership roles. But as a manager/leader, you have a new responsibility: you must get work done through others rather than doing it all yourself. Getting others to accomplish your goals requires a very different skill set, including:

    • planning projects
    • assigning work to individuals based on their current skills and professional development needs
    • setting priorities for your team
    • communicating expectations and success criteria
    • building relationships with the members of your team
    • motivating others and creating a sense of ownership
    • monitoring progress and measuring performance
    • making yourself available to subordinates to answer questions and provide needed assistance, coaching, and feedback
    • creating an environment that encourages two-way communication
    • allowing subordinates to learn from their mistakes
    • managing your own emotions under pressure

    Most lawyers in law firms are faced with demands that they may view as obstacles to effective delegation. How can you meet billable hours expectations and take the time to develop junior lawyers - and your own leadership skills?

    As a manager, your responsibilities have expanded, and it's impossible to handle everything yourself. To be successful, you must learn how to reallocate your time so that you can complete your own work and help others perform effectively - even though it seems like finding the time to do both is impossible. Becoming an effective delegator requires more than developing new skills; it also demands a shift in your attitudes and values. This is no easy feat.

    Why Learn to Delegate?

    Learning to delegate effectively is difficult, but there are many reasons why it is important to devote time and energy to becoming a master delegator.

    1) The attorney who cannot effectively delegate is likely to find herself overloaded and overwhelmed while her top priorities go unaddressed.

    2) Unless you plan to remain an individual contributor working on projects small enough for one person to complete, you have no choice. To take on leadership roles and to challenge yourself professionally, you'll need the help of others to accomplish your goals. And the most effective way to get the assistance you need is through effective delegation.

    3) Delegation skills apply throughout your life. If you're a parent using childcare, you have to delegate - and the better you are at it, the less stress you'll experience while you're away from your children.

    4) Women continue to carry the bulk of household tasks. Trying to carry this responsibility on top of your work load can be crushing. Delegating is essentially contracting with someone to share responsibility for accomplishing your goal. Women lawyers who can share household work with partners and others are freer to put their time and energy where they are most needed.

    5) Mastering delegation reduces your stress, decreases the likelihood that you'll burn out, and enables you to devote more time to your priorities and to the tasks that use your strengths and that you love to do.

    6) Delegation frees you to engage in activities that increase firm profitability, like business development and strengthening relationships with clients.

    7) Delegating gives you access to creative solutions from subordinates. You'll improve your communication skills and increase your credibility as a leader.

    8) Newer attorneys are interested in working at places where they can develop their skills. The opportunity for skill development requires that you delegate work to them. Failure to receive good work assignments is a leading cause of associate attrition.

    9) When newer associates do not receive good work assignments their motivation and morale deteriorate. Delegating challenging work allows associates to learn by doing, to take risks, and to build confidence.

    10) Failure to delegate effectively reduces the profitability of your firm or organization. Doing all of the work yourself creates a high cost system of service delivery that's likely to reduce your competitiveness in the market and alienate clients.

    11) Delegation is succession planning. Your firm's future depends on it.

    12) Delegation allows you to build your team, train others, and expand your sphere of influence. It's a win-win solution.

    Effective Delegation Requires Skills

    Unfortunately, many attorneys who recognize the value of delegating work see it as little more than handing out assignments. In reality, effective delegation is a far more complex activity. If you want to reap the benefits, you'll need to master these skills:

    1) Adjust Your Attitude. Get out of your individual contributor mindset. Remember that it's now your job to get work done through others. Think long-term instead of short-term. Masterful delegation requires front-loading your time and effort for long-term benefits. Make mastering delegation a top priority career goal for yourself. Schedule the time you need to do it well.

    You can't afford not to spend time on effective delegating. Career success - especially leadership - requires that you delegate. If you don't master this skill you're either going to burn out or your entire career will be spent grinding out someone else's work.

    Have You Mastered the Art of Delegation?

    How you answer the following questions reveals your attitude toward delegation, and whether you effectively delegate work.

    1) What percentage of your professional work time is spent doing things that a more junior person could do if she or he was trained to handle it well?

    2) Do you view questions from your subordinates as interruptions?

    3) When you receive a work product from a junior lawyer, do you tend to fix the mistakes rather than teaching the new attorney how to do the underlying task properly?

    4) Do you tend to blame your subordinates for their mistakes and failures?

    5) Do you take genuine ownership for the success of junior lawyers who work for you?

    6) Do you define delegation as task assignment?

    2) Decide What Categories of Work You Should Be Delegating. According to the Pareto Principle,2 80 percent of an enterprise's revenue comes from 20 percent of its customers. As applied to your responsibilities, this means that 20 percent of your activity produces 80 percent of your success. Focus your efforts on the 20 percent of your tasks that produces the greatest benefit.

    Try making a list of all the activities that occupy your time. Select those that use your unique strengths, that you love to do, and that only you can do - and plan to delegate the rest. Apply this to home as well as work.

    3) Develop Relationships with Your Team Members. To be a masterful delegator, you need to value and invest time in developing relationships with those to whom you want to delegate tasks. It's essential to build relationships of trust, respect, mutual support, and common purpose. Junior lawyers will be far more committed to doing their best for a trusted leader who has demonstrated an interest in them. Fostering communication will help to make the delegation process run smoothly. Understanding your associates' professional goals will enable you to align their goals with your own. Having a clear sense of their strengths and professional development needs allows you to assign tasks well suited to particular individuals.

    4) Plan Thoughtfully. Don't just divide up the tasks required to complete your project and hand them out. Think about who is ready to take on each task. Consider the urgency of deadlines. If you have little time to train someone about how to get a particular job done then you'll need to delegate it to someone who can do it with a minimum of direction. Similarly, avoid assigning work to someone whose skills fall far short of what's required to effectively complete the task. Giving an associate work that is too far beyond his reach simply sets him up for failure and you for disappointment.

    Consider everyone on your team. All too often, work is delegated to the first associate you run into. Instead, remember the skills of all your associates, including associates who may be working alternative schedules or at locations other than your office. You may not happen to run into them on the day you need to assign the work but you know how to reach them. Ignoring them deprives them of professional development opportunities, increases the likelihood of their attrition, and deprives you of the talent you need to make your own job easier.

    5) Delegate Ownership. You'll get an associate's best work if she feels a sense of shared equity in the success of the project and the practice. Don't just assign a task - give the junior attorney "response ability" for the product. Associates who have had input in developing plans are far more likely to be committed to the outcome.

    When delegating a task, make sure the associate can see where her contribution fits in the big picture. Give subordinates room to decide how to get the job done - this increases their sense of ownership.

    6) Motivate. Good managers can make the people who work for them feel positively about their work assignments and want to do their best. Express your confidence in the associate when you give him a task to complete. Delegate work that will challenge the associate to grow without overwhelming him. Provide the person to whom you've delegated a task with a sense of its purpose and importance.

    7) Plan and Contract Together. Don't just tell the associate what to do. Explain the objectives and elicit the associate's input about ways to get the job done and estimates of how long it should take to complete the task. Agree on critical requirements for doing the job, what the outcome will look like, benchmarks, and goals. Ask the associate what she needs in order to complete the work well and by the deadline.

    8) Communicate and Confirm. Work to make your expectations crystal clear. Explain the results you expect in ways that are specific and measurable. Share your thinking about the assignment. Discuss deadlines and ask the associate if they seem realistic. Clarify how you will know if the junior attorney needs help. Make clear to the associate how much authority you're delegating. When a decision about his assignment needs to be made, should he use his own best judgment or come to you for an answer? Check on your subordinate's understanding of your expectations. Prevent problems by clearing up miscommunications at the outset.

    9) Monitor Performance. You don't want to receive an inadequate work product at the 11th hour. Plan a communication protocol at the time you make the assignment. Make sure you give yourself enough time to provide feedback and for the associate to make the necessary revisions. With a less experienced associate you may ask for a plan for completing the task as the first step. Decide whether daily status reports are necessary. Agree on times for you to provide feedback, both via email and in person. For long-term assignments, decide together about benchmarks and schedule appointments for progress reviews.

    While being kept up to date about the status of an assignment is essential, be careful not to micromanage the work. You'll need to find the right balance between interest and support, on the one hand, and interference, on the other. Micromanagement undermines motivation and the junior attorney's ownership of the task.

    10) Be Approachable. It's crucial that your team perceive you to be available to respond to questions, concerns, and requests for assistance. Even if you're traveling, you can provide your team with information about how to reach you and when you'd prefer to be contacted. Being approachable allows for the two-way communication and trust so essential for effective leadership. Although this may take more time, your range of influence will increase appreciably.

    Being available also means managing your own stress well enough to remain emotionally available to the attorneys and support staff you're trying to train.

    11) Coach. Taking the time to coach junior attorneys is the best way to develop their skills. Provide accurate, honest, and timely feedback. It may be difficult for you to give negative feedback. Try remembering how hard it is to receive it. No one's interests are served if you wait until evaluation time to deliver bad news.

    If you receive a poor work product, encourage the associate to tell you what's interfering with his performance. Problem solve together and encourage the junior attorney to generate his own plan for resolving difficulties.

    12) How to Deal with Mistakes. Junior attorneys need to have the room to make mistakes, so they can learn and develop professionally. If an associate is afraid to take risks or appear "stupid," she will not ask the questions you need her to ask and will avoid accepting assignments.

    Consider giving feedback in a sandwich: point out something positive; focus on the problem; and end with something the attorney has done well or encouragement about his ability to correct the mistake.

    Address mistakes by looking forward. Elicit the associate's ideas about how improvements could be made. Brainstorm new approaches and ask what additional resources might be helpful.

    Save the "what went wrong" discussion for later. Once the associate has brought the work product up to par, you can review together why the result failed to meet expectations. Consider the possibility that your directions were less clear than you thought or that you overestimated the junior attorney's skill. Encourage the associate to share her approach to the project so you can assess whether her focus was where it needed to be. Remember, if you're coaching, the purpose of the discussion is learning, not blame.

    Don't give in to your impulse to fix mistakes yourself. If your follow-up protocol allowed for sufficient time you should have been able to identify the problem early enough for necessary revisions.

    This will be especially challenging when you're under pressure from a client. If you've decided to try to develop your leadership skills, then commit yourself to preventing your anxiety from driving your decisions. Associates become very demoralized when you communicate that their work is inadequate and simply fix it yourself.

    13) Foster Accountability. Give your subordinates the room to say they don't know how to do something and hold them accountable for work they've promised, but failed, to complete. Don't be harsh, but don't avoid conflict. You're training junior lawyers to be responsive to clients. Harshness is unnecessary. Sometimes leadership requires saying things others would prefer not to hear.

    This can be particularly difficult for women partners/managers who often have to tread a very fine line to avoid being seen as "cold" or "ineffectual." Often people expect nurturance from women and can seem wounded when women hold them accountable. It's possible to be stern and supportive. Coaching is often helpful in finding the right balance.

    14) Recognize Contributions. Gallup's research3 consistently indicates that people who receive regular recognition and praise at work are more engaged, productive, and likely to stay with their organization. Furthermore, employee engagement is strongly tied to firm profitability. Get out of the "no news is good news" habit. Remember to provide meaningful and specific praise and recognition to your subordinates.

    15) Get Your Own Coach. It's easier to coach your subordinates if you have your own coach helping you to accomplish your leadership-development goals. If you make a commitment to your coach to delegate, you're far more likely to actually delegate - and to make delegating work effectively for you.


    1R. Charan, S. Drotter & J. Noel, The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

    2Pareto Principle, formulated by Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th-century Italian economist and sociologist.

    3R. Rath & Donald O. Clifton, How Full Is Your Bucket? (New York: Gallup Press, 2004).