Resources Articles Delegating: A Necessary Skill for Career Success

Delegating: A Necessary Skill for Career Success

Lawyers Weekly USA
January 30, 2006

The most difficult challenge for lawyers who rise to managerial positions is learning to carve out time from their own individual efforts to foster the productivity of others.

You must genuinely believe that the time devoted to planning, delegating and coaching others is not only well spent, but essential. The mindset that helped you earn your promotion – “It’s easier just to do it myself” – just won’t fly anymore.

It’s natural to want to fall back on the skills that served you so well in the past, but to succeed at this new level, you will have to master a new set of skills. You will have to learn to diagnose individual strengths and weaknesses so that you can develop strategies for maximizing the talents of those around you. In order to produce your own excellent work product, you will have to teach, motivate and coach others.

Attorneys who cannot delegate are destined to be overwhelmed with work while top priorities go unaddressed. As self-sufficient as you may be, you still can’t accomplsh what a well-organized team can do.

Mastering delegation reduces your stress while enabling you to devote more time to activities that boost firm profitability, such as business development and building client relationships. It also gives you access to creative solutions from subordinates. It promotes the overall health of the firm, since younger attorneys need a challenge to remain engaged. That can only occur if you delegate meaningful work to them.

Delegation is also succession planning. Your firm’s future depends on it.

Barriers to Delegation

If you’re like most new managers, the trick is finding a way to meet your own billable hour requirements while taking time to develop junior lawyers – and your own leadership skills. Most firms do not provide any tangible rewards for effective delegating. If you’re only paid for the work you do yourself, not the work you do through others, you’ll need to learn to value effective delegation in spite of the organizational culture.

It’s also easy to get frustrated with the work product of junior people. Even if you’re not a perfectionist, you probably believe you can do the work better and faster yourself. And in the short-run, this is undoubtedly true. But effective delegation requires sacrificing time in the short-run in order to accomplish essential long-term goals. When you’re under deadline pressure, it’s easy to lose sight of the potential payoff of developing y-our team.

For many lawyers, delegating is most difficult when business is slow. But during a business slump a partner’s time is actually best spent generating new work – and this requires pushing work down to junior lawyers. Unfortunately, the pressure to generate billable hours, combined with insecurity about business development, more often leads partners to hoard, rather than delegate work.

Lawyers new to management often experience working through others as giving up control. It takes time and experience to learn that you actually gain control of your practice by delegating.

One way to help you work through these barriers is to get your own coach to help you master the art of delegation. Once you see the results of this kind of leadership, you’re more likely to be convinced.

A Quick Test To Measure Your Delegating Skills

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

2. Do you view questions from your direct reports as interruptions?

3. When you receive a work product from a junior lawyer, do you fix the mistakes rather than teaching the new attorney how to do it 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?

Delegating Effectively

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. Make delegation a top career goal and make time to master it. You can’t afford not to. Career success – especially leadership – requires that you delegate. If you don’t master these skills you’re either going to burn out or your entire career will be spent grinding out someone else’s work.

2. Decide What Types Of Work To Delegate. For most people, 80 percent of their productivity comes from 20 percent of their effort. Focus your efforts on the 20 percent that produces the greatest benefit. Make a list of all the activities that occupy your time, determine what only you can do, and delegate the rest. Apply this to home as well as work.

3. Develop Relationships With Team Members. In order to be an effective delegator, it is essential to build relationships of trust, respect, common purpose and mutual support with your team members. Junior lawyers will be far more committed to doing their best for a trusted leader who has demonstrated an interest in them. Learn about your associates’ professional goals. By having a clear sense of their strengths and professional development needs, you can assign tasks that are well-suited to each individual.

4. Plan Thoughtfully. Don’t hand out assignments randomly. Think about who is best suited to each task and make sure each person has time to meet the required deadlines. All too often, work is delegated to the first associate you run into that day.

5. Motivate Through Ownership. You’ll get the best work from people who feel they have a personal stake in the project. Don’t just assign a task – give junior attorneys responsibility for a portion of the project and make sure they see how their contributions fit in to the big picture. Seek their suggestions on how to accomplish
the task most effectively. Express confidence in their abilities and assign them work that is challenging within the scope of their capabilities.

6. Communicate And Confirm. Make sure your expectations are crystal clear. Explain the results you expect in ways that are specific and measurable. Agree upon a timetable and final deadline. Make clear to the associate how much authority you’re delegating. When a decision about his assignment needs to be made, should she use his own best judgment or come to you for an answer?

7. Monitor Performance. The last thing you need is to receive inadequate work at the 11th hour. Plan a communication protocol at the time you make the assignment and agree on times for you to provide feedback, both via e-mail and in person. Make sure you build in time for revisions based on your feedback. While monitoring progress, you must be careful not to micromanage the work. You’ll need to find the right balance between support and interference.

8. Be Approachable. It’s crucial that your team perceive you as available for questions and assistance, even if you’re traveling. Being available also means managing your own stress well enough to remain emotionally available to the attorneys you’re trying to train.

9. Coach. Accurate, honest and timely feedback is the best way to develop the skills of junior attorneys. No one’s interests are served if you wait until evaluation time to deliver bad news. If you receive poor work product, encourage the associate to tell you what’s interfering with his performance.

10. Deal Productively With Mistakes. Junior attorneys need room to make mistakes in order to learn and develop. 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 to make improvements.

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. Remember, if you’re coaching, the purpose of the discussion is learning, not blame.

Above all, don’t give into 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. Associates become very demoralized when you communicate that their work is inadequate and simply fix it yourself.

11. Accountability. Overcome any tendency you may have toward conflict avoidance. You are training young lawyers to be responsive to clients. Harshness is unnecessary, but sometimes leadership requires saying things others would prefer not to hear.

12. Recognize Contributions. Gallup’s research indicates that people who receive regular recognition and praise are more engaged, productive and likely to stay with their organization. Get out of the “no news is good news” habit. Remember to provide meaningful and specific praise and recognition to your subordinates.


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