Vol. 78, No. 11 November
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 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,
- 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
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
1) The attorney who cannot effectively delegate is likely to find
herself overloaded and overwhelmed while her top priorities go
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
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
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
6) Delegation frees you to engage in activities that increase firm
profitability, like business development and strengthening relationships
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).