I’ve had several recent conversations with senior lawyers who are reluctant to delegate work to part-time administrative staff. They don’t want to be perceived as demanding. They’re afraid of confrontation.
They are actually more open to the concept of flexible work arrangements than most people give them credit for, but they need reassurances that part-time staff are just as committed to quality work as their full-time counterparts.
Unique challenges of delegating to part-time administrative staff
With more and more of us working outside the office or part-time, there is less opportunity for face-to-face communication, which means that it takes longer to build rapport and trusting relationships.
A lot of legal work – especially litigation –requires short turnaround times in response to changes in the schedule and scope of a matter. Team members need to be available and accessible. When this isn’t an option – in a smaller firm with a shallower pool of resources, for example – the impact can be onerous
Part-time workers are a growing segment of the Canadian workforce. More people are electing to work part-time instead of full-time for a variety of reasons. And more firms are reducing full-time administrative staff to control costs.
There is no quick solution
One lawyer I spoke with believes that part-time employees are less committed to “working hard” than full-time employees. Earlier in her career, she was let down by a part-time employee who repeatedly missed deadlines, refused to accommodate the occasional request to stay late and who sulked when delicately and professionally asked to explain mistakes. It has taken years for her to consider hiring part-time staff.
Efficient technology such as project management software and electronic file management systems make it easy to track work progress. But many aspects of delegation rely on context and communication that can’t be easily managed through data inputs.
Training is another consideration; firms might hesitate to invest in developing the skills of part-time staff if the long-term benefit of doing so is unclear or undervalued.
Ideas to investigate
- Consider your bias towards delegating to part-time employees
- Are your past experiences relevant to the current situation?
- How could you validate your assumption about the employee’s commitment to getting the work done properly and on time?
- What are the consequences if you can’t overcome your bias?
- Co-create a brief, but formal checklist of expectations when tasks are assigned or work begins on a new matter. If the list is objective, you’ll both have an opportunity to discuss how the work will get done within the anticipated budget and what should result from it. It’s also a good way to confirm that you’re delegating the right tasks to begin with.
- Find a way to incorporate predictability and consistency into your working relationship. Regular meetings, protocols, updates, etc., will build trust as you learn to work together.
- Value candour. Clear the air. You’ll save yourself the anxiety of worrying about hurting someone’s feelings, operating on incorrect assumptions or offending staff with your “demands”. Be direct, but be respectful. A review of client objectives offers a neutral way to triangulate the discussion and diffuse tension.
Economic and demographic trends indicate that the number of part-time workers in the legal profession will continue to grow. Try to make the most of your working relationships by building trust and keeping the lines of communication open (that goes for all your working relationships, not just those with part-time staff).