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Advice for the Reluctant Delegator

Are you a reluctant delegator?

  • You have tried delegating and have been let down time and time again.
  • You have found that no one does the work as well as you, or the way you want it done.
  • You have concluded that it is just faster and easier to do it yourself.
  • Or by the time you figure out that something could have been delegated it is too late.

On a scale of one to ten, one being you have never delegated a thing in your life, and ten being you are a star delegator, how would you rate yourself?

This article is for everyone who rates at a six or under. And if you are in that enviable category of seven or higher please read on as this article will celebrate your accomplishments.

I am not going to waste any ink on making the case for delegation. Dan Pinnington has already handled that ably in his May 2014 article for Slaw. In addition to Dan’s points I will simply add that there is no better way for a lawyer to hone leadership abilities than through delegation. If you want better law firm leaders, than get more of your legal team polishing their delegation skills.

Delegation is where personal leadership skills are put to the test. Becoming an effective delegator gives you the opportunity to do the personal development work that won’t just make you a better delegator, but a better lawyer, a better mentor, and a better leader.

Here are five leadership attributes that are honed when you learn to delegate effectively:

  1. Integrity: You treat others as you would like to be treated, respectfully and honestly.
  2. Communication: You don’t cut corners on communication. You take time to explain details effectively. You keep people informed about what is going on.
  3. Feedback: You know how to give both positive and constructive feedback that is meaningful and can help a person develop.
  4. Leadership under duress: When things go sideways you can talk yourself down from the ledge and take positive corrective action. In fact you built in time just in case something went wrong.
  5. Planning: You have routines in place that keep you organized. Your reserve time for thinking ahead and planning for what is coming. You don’t create emergencies because of poor organization and bad planning.

You aren’t born with these attributes, they don’t just happen. They come from focus, effort, and practice. And delegation is the big old gymnasium where you get to work on them.

The first step is to examine what is currently getting in your way. Here are some of the common roadblocks to delegation, recognize any?

  • It will take too much time to show someone how to do this, I am better off doing it myself.
  • They won’t do it as well as I will.
  • It’s my responsibility.
  • I am embarrassed about the state of the file, I don’t want to have to show it to anyone.

What these all have in common is that they are thinking traps. As I coach I will tell you that the key to making positive change is in starting with investigating your thoughts:

Thought: It will take too much time.
Rebuttal: Delegation does take time but in the not so long run it creates capacity in a legal practice and allows you to do the more interesting and challenging work.

Thought: They won’t do it as well as I will.
Rebuttal: Not everything requires the ability of someone at my year of call. I will review it and ensure that it is done well.

Thought: It’s my responsibility.
Rebuttal: Yes, to see that the client doesn’t pay more than need be for the work. And to be responsible for helping lawyers in my office grow and develop.

Thought: I am embarrassed about the state of the file.
Rebuttal: Oh well, it’s not the end of the world. I am not perfect and am not going to pretend to be.

Remember not to believe everything you think! To start delegating pay attention to your thoughts. How are they blocking you? Investigate them and shift your thinking to make it possible for you to delegate.

There is one additional common obstacle which you might run into:

  • I have left this to the last minute and now there isn’t enough time to delegate it.

In many cases this is a fact, plain and simple. If this is your challenge than the starting point is to introduce some regular planning sessions into your practice as you will read below.

To improve at delegation follow this simple checklist:

Plan. Take a few minutes daily to see what work is coming up in the week and month ahead and decide what can be delegated.

Prioritize. Make delegation the first priority each morning.

Communicate: Meet in-person (if possible) with the delegatee. Walk them through the assignment. Provide the larger context.

Check: Check on the delgatee’s workload. If they appear hesitant and use words such as “try” or “I think I can” seek out more information. This will help surface any unspoken issues and help you strategize with them on how they can ensure they meet the timeline.

Clarify: Ask the delegatee to repeat back what you have told them. Explain this is not to test them but to ensure you haven’t left out something important. If the person seems unsure then you can either have them email you with the instructions in writing, or you can email them.

Schedule: Schedule a check-in with the delegatee. This is a chance for them to ask questions and share drafts with you at the early stage.

Clear Timelines: Provide clear timelines and explain them. If plans change and more time presents itself, let them know.

Follow Up: Follow-up with the delegatee before the assignment is due to check on progress.

Feedback: The last step in the delegation process is to provide feedback about what was good about the work they did, what changes you made to the document and why, and what happened next with the project.

Give thanks: Include a thank you for the delegatee’s efforts and contributions at the end of the assignment. It will go a long way.

And by the way, things will at times go sideways. You will train up a great junior and they will leave the firm. You will get something back late and in bad shape. The key is to keep your eye on the big picture. Have a word with yourself. Don’t let yourself be derailed by a setback. Remember your goals and why they are important. Persevere. When you are a good delegator you will find that juniors like to work with you and will be available to help when you need them.

My thanks to Lauren Cook, a lawyer with Lawson Lundell LLP, and my co-presenter on the upcoming December 9 CLETV presentation “Overcoming the Delegation Dilemma: Tips and Tactics for the Reluctant Delegator”. Lauren took time out her day to share with me so much of what she has learned in her journey from reluctant to adept delegator.

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