An important skill to learn for practicing law is how to delegate. All lawyers delegate; few lawyers delegate well.
Whether you’re just starting out in practice or whether you’ve been in practice for many years, part of your responsibilities will include delegation. If you’ve ever received an incomprehensible assignment, consider these tips so you don’t perpetuate the cycle.
To delegate well, think in terms of the “5 Ws” that you likely learned years ago: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Of course, in this context, some of the Ws are less important than usual — but they’re a helpful organizing model nonetheless.
Who First, select the person to whom you’re going to delegate. This is often an easy step, but do consider whether the person you have in mind has the ability to do what you need done. For instance, you might delegate preparaing documents for production to a brand new associate or a 3rd year associate, but if you’re concerned about intricate privilege issues, you’d be wiser to select the more senior associate. (But you’ll review the “close call” documents either way — right?)
What Define exactly what you want done. Define the project specifically. Until you’re skilled at delegation, you might even consider writing down the request to make sure it’s clear. And then consider what you want to receive. If it’s a research project, do you want the work product in the form of a memo, an outline, or an oral report? Do you want the treatise-length exposition of all of the ins and outs of the issue, or do you want a quick-and-dirty answer? Do you want to see the cases cited? In addition, consider how much background you need to provide in the assignment. If you’re requesting research on a fact-specific issue, you’ll need to provide the relevant facts or a source from which they can be determined.
Doing this when you make the assignment will save you much time in the long run. There’s little more frustrating than getting the answer to the wrong question.
When Two components here: When should you make the assignment, and when do you need the project you’re delegating to be completed? Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to review the work — in other words, don’t request critical research for a brief to be delivered to you on the morning the brief is due to be filed. Although many lawyers seem to raise procrastination to an art form, your practice and your life will run more smoothly if you arrange a schedule that leaves adequate time in case there’s a misstep.
Where If you’re assigning an off-site project, provide whatever information is necessary. Except in the case of document review, this isn’t usually a factor.
Why It’s tempting to say that the only answer to “why” the delegated project should be done is because you’re the lawyer and you said so. Fight this urge! Consider whether explaining why you need something done will increase the likelihood that you’ll get what you really need. For instance, if you need legal research to prepare you for an argument, the person to whom you delegate the work will be able to keep that in mind as he’s performing the task and will therefore be more likely to note any procedural issues in the cases that might be relevant.
How If you have preferences on how a project should be completed, say so. For instance, if you are requesting your secretary to set up a filing system for you and you have particular preferences about how your files are arranged, communicate that.
It may take a little extra effort, at least initially, to delegate well. The effort is wisely invested, though, because good delegation will increase the chances of getting the project done when you need it and in the way you need it. You’ll also be a better colleague, which always pays dividends.