The Fifth Tool: Assigning Tasks

In six preceding articles I have described the idea behind becoming a very highly valued five-tools project manager, ready to manage each of the five progress factors:

  • Manage the project, starting with the project charter.
  • Manage the client, starting with the Conditions of Satisfaction.
  • Manage time, starting with the Off Switch.
  • Manage money, starting with budgets.
  • Manage the team, starting with assigning tasks accurately.

The fifth tool deals with the most important asset on your team. It’s an asset that goes home at night, an asset that defines the biggest difference between project success and failure.

And it’s the asset that lawyers seem least trained to engage with.

The asset: Other legal professionals on your team.

I’ll devote future articles to the art and science of leading professionals, but this month I want to briefly describe a specific tool for assigning a task effectively. This proven method minimizes rework, misunderstandings, and write-offs. I cover it in detail in Legal Project Management Field Guide and in my courses.

A study some years back at a large New York firm determined that the three largest factors in unplanned write-offs all revolved around assigning tasks poorly. Giving an assignment need not be haphazard, nor should it be. (I am indebted to colleague John Rapp, Esq., for helping systematize my thinking on this topic.)

Describe the task itself (the “what,” not the “how”), and then cover the following, in any order:


Who’s the client? What’s the matter number? Where are the charter and other documents, both team and client documents? What are the relevant laws, jurisdictions, sources of information, and so on?


What’s the nature of the matter? Why is the work needed? Why now? The project charter (the first tool) should answer the first two questions as well, so you’ll make your job easier if you ensure the delegate has a copy of the charter.


When is it due? How much time will it take? The task time budget is crucial and valuable information.

Task budgets are important because budgets drive behavior. If you agree that a task should take twenty hours, the delegate will not just try to meet that goal, but will limit the work appropriately. While most lawyers want to do as much for their clients as possible, clients rarely have unlimited funds, nor do attorneys possess infinite time. The task budget encompasses your assessment of how much a particular task is worth in the context of the client’s specific needs.

Start by asking the delegate how long she expects the work to take. This discussion may prompt valuable questions about hidden aspects of the work. Next, work toward agreeing on the amount of time.

The shorter-than-expected estimate may assume that the task is simpler than it appears, or may reflect assets and work product that can be reused.

The longer estimate may stem from a deeper understanding of the specific steps needed, or the delegate may not recognize what can be adapted from previous work.

Work toward shared understanding of needs and steps first, and then agree on a time budget.


How often should the delegate check in with you? This often-overlooked step makes delegation more comfortable. Ensure that you reserve time for check-ins – and that the delegate understands that you want her to “bother you” with check-ins as she needs them.


What gets delivered? A brief? A memo? Is it draft or final? Are there any oral reports?


If you as the senior lawyer have a working hypothesis for this part of the matter, share it. Remember, your job is to assign the “what,” not the “how.” A hypothesis is not really a “how” but rather a get-on-the-same-page opportunity.


When are you available for questions? Who else might serve as a resource? This step ties into the check-in, above.


Confirmation includes two parts.

First, does the delegate have time? Although I include this item with confirmation rather than timing, I am not suggesting you necessarily wait until the end of the conversation to determine whether the delegate has time to complete the assignment by the deadline. Especially when working with people new to your team, ask this question explicitly to get a clear answer and commitment.

Second, the delegate should offer (or you should request) a readback, a restatement by the delegate of what he believes the task and deadlines are.

A readback clarifies the assignment. Hidden assumptions can still trip you up, but at least obvious points where the delegate is unclear will surface now, rather than after the delegate has performed significant work in the wrong direction.

Also, a delegate trying to restate the assignment may discover points that are unclear. You’ve told him, say, about Part A and Part B of the task. As he reads it back, he realizes that he doesn’t know how to get from A to B. Such self-recognition is a big part of the readback process.


Following these eight simple steps, in any order, will cut down errors and costly rework.

The assignment tool is probably the easiest of the five tools to try out. Share with your delegates the fact you’re using this tool, and cut down your write-offs – and your stress levels.

(This article is adapted from Steven B. Levy’s most recent book, Legal Project Management Field Guide: Five Tools for Busy Professionals, which covers delegation and assignments – and the other tools – in greater detail. Mr. Levy’s field-defining book, Legal Project Management, has just been updated and expanded via a second edition.)

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