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From the moment you enter a law firm, you are a manager. At first, you may do no more than manage support staff (your secretary, word processors, the copying department, and others). You “manage” by delegating parts of your work to them. Your effectiveness and efficiency depend, in large part, on how well you delegate. As you gain seniority and experience, the ability to delegate effectively becomes ever more important. You begin to handle several projects at once; the projects become more complicated; and the circle of persons to whom you delegate work becomes ever wider. Most lawyers, however, never receive any formal training in management. Law schools do not generally teach the subject, and most law firms expect on-the-job experience to suffice. As a result, among the most universal complaints in law firms are those related to delegation. Senior lawyers often complain that “you just can’t get good help any more.” Junior lawyer complaints are more like: “I hate working for [Joe or Jane partner]. He/she is always in my face or I can’t find him/her for days at a time.” This article focuses on the concept of delegation, offering some practical tips on how to improve delegation, and pointing out obstacles that can stand in the way of effective delegation. DELEGATING What is delegation? Most fundamentally, delegation involves sharing work. A decision is made that some parts of a project will be performed by one person, and other parts performed by someone else. For legal projects, there can often be multiple delegations, with several people working on various aspects of a project. Effective delegation requires a good understanding of the project. At least one person needs to understand the object of the project, and its component parts. There must also be an understanding of the capabilities and availability of the other person(s) to whom work will be delegated. Productive delegation also requires good communication. The person delegating work must describe the background of the project adequately, and give instructions that are understandable. The person taking on the work must clearly feed back an understanding of the background and instructions, and identify any constraints (lack of training, time or other resources) that may impede completion of the assigned task. The parties involved must teach each other about their needs, and negotiate the terms under which the work will be performed. WHAT TO DELEGATE? Effective delegation starts with the question: “Why am I doing this work?” On reflection, you may discover that some work need not be done at all. Someone else may already be doing the work. The need for the work may have been superseded by events. In some instances, the work may simply be a matter of habit or custom that serves no real purpose. It is also important to remember that delegation does not always go down, to subordinates. In many instances, a senior lawyer or even a colleague at your level has more training or experience in a particular area than you do. Often, the efficient way to get particularized work done is to delegate up (or side-ways) by “picking the brain” of another person with knowledge, or by handing off the work wholesale. In addition, there are several key characteristics of work that may be effectively delegated. Look for assignments that: 1. Involve repetitive, routine work in areas where your repetition of the work will not improve your skill or understanding; 2. Have a low risk of errors, or can be easily fixed if an error occurs; 3. Require only a working, not perfect, knowledge of the overall project, such that the time required to explain the background of the project will not overwhelm the efficiency of the delegation; 4. Will permit a subordinate to learn an essential skill, or to become more acquainted with the work you do, such that the assignment can become an opportunity to teach the subordinate how to assist you on other projects. These are not the sole hallmarks of delegable work, of course, but a thorough application of even these most basic criteria will very likely yield a substantial list of candidates for delegation of work. The ideal delegation of work involves giving a person just enough information and authority to make sure that they can effectively complete the assigned task, and learn from the experience. Lack of information and authority is bound to lead to bad results. If you do not tell a person enough about the project and your requirements, you can expect either indecision (and repeated, annoying demands for more instructions), or wasted effort and mistakes. Similarly, if you do not give a person enough discretion and authority to complete the task with some independence, you will produce inefficiency and frustration. With these general guidelines in mind, consider the following suggestions for improving the effectiveness of delegation: 1. Make sure that the person to whom the work is delegated is right for the job. If the person has few of the required skills and experience for the work, success may be impossible. On the other hand, it may be possible to match the person’s skills to some sub-part of the work, permitting a more limited, but successful, delegation. 2. Make sure that the delegation dialogue is two-way. Try to ask as many questions of the persons to whom you assign the work as they ask of you: Do they understand the assignment? Do they have any experience related to the assignment? Do they foresee any problems in taking on and completing the assignment? What steps do they plan to follow in carrying out the assignment? What do they plan to do first? 3. Make sure that you have agreed on the most fundamental terms of the delegation, such as: When is the work due? Do you want to see the work in draft, or only the finished product? Do you want progress reports? Are there any areas related to the work that you do not want touched? Does anyone else need to be consulted in connection with the work? 4. Offer any resources that you know are readily available to help complete the assignment: Is there any precedent form, or relevant prior research? Has anyone else in the firm done this kind of project before? Is there a major treatise or standard reference that can help? Are there any firm policies that might affect the project? 5. Make sure that any time constraints imposed are reasonable and real. 6. Do not “pull the plug” as soon as something goes wrong. With most assignments, some mistakes will inevitably be made. Patient effort to understand the problem and to help the other person solve it, is an essential part of the learning experience that comes from delegation. 7. Build in some system for feedback on the project: Set a specific time, if possible, to discuss the work, any additional assignments that might grow out of the work, and any suggestions for improvements (in both directions) in the future. For larger projects, with several people working on various tasks, it is common to have a regular team meeting, or conference call, to discuss the progress of the work. Even for smaller projects, scheduling a specific time to discuss what has gone right and wrong with the work may help to ensure that the work gets done on time, and that learning opportunities from the assignment have been exploited. OVERCOMING BARRIERS As noted, perhaps the principal problem preventing effective delegation is the lack of training that most law schools and law firms provide in this area. For the busy lawyer who may not have received formal training in this area, a quick review of any of the popular management advice books will probably yield some useful insights. There are also beneficial seminars and on-line courses on the subject. The central message of many of these courses is that delegation is something to be embraced for its benefits, rather than feared for potential loss of control. Junior lawyers who are actively involved in projects, who feel that they are learning and stretching their abilities, are generally more productive and satisfied. Senior lawyers who can let go of less important tasks find that they can focus more on strategy, client contact and business development, among other more satisfying activities. The recognition that delegation can be a win/win situation for senior and junior lawyers may not suffice to establish a culture of effective delegation. Among the more basic problems are these: 1. There may be a lack of familiarity with the abilities of lawyers to whom work may be delegated. Senior lawyers need to take affirmative steps to familiarize themselves with the talents and interests of the junior lawyers in their firm. Junior lawyers need to take affirmative steps to “advertise” those talents and interests to their seniors. There is no magic formula for getting to know each other. Many firms use regular office cocktail parties and department meetings, as well as mentorentee programs in an effort to promote social interaction beyond the bounds of the single work assignment. 2. There may be a lack of confidence in the training and experience of the lawyers to whom work may be delegated. Senior lawyers need to make sure that the training and work experiences offered to junior lawyers are appropriate to the needs of the firm. Often, the best way for senior lawyers to do that is to offer to teach in-house seminars on their own areas of practice. Junior lawyers need to take responsibility for ensuring that they are getting the training they need to succeed. That means taking advantage of in-house training when it is available, but also paying attention to potential learning resources outside the firm. 3. There may be a perceived lack of encouragement to have junior lawyers take on ever-increasing levels of responsibility. Senior lawyers need to set goals for the experiences that junior lawyers should have as they progress through their careers. Periodic counseling sessions with junior lawyers can help to ensure that their career progress is “on track.” Junior lawyers need to mark their own progress, and to speak up when they see potential opportunities for work that could significantly expand their experience base. Junior lawyers also need to recognize that the career experience of a lawyer is cumulative, and progressive. A junior lawyer does not suddenly know everything about a chosen field upon making partner. Steady effort to acquire skills and experience is what leads to success, before partnership and beyond. AN ART, NOT A SCIENCE Delegation is an art, not a science. Each practitioner has a particular style, and no single style works for everyone. Yet, effective techniques for delegation can be studied. In the modern law firm, with compartmentalized structures and functions, the ability to delegate well is essential. Indeed, client demands for efficient lower-cost legal work essentially correlate to a very real need to delegate work effectively. A focus on development of the art of delegation is well worth an attorney’s time, no matter the attorney’s age or status. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City office of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, and a co-coordinator of the New Associates group in that office. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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