Do Not Fear Delegation — Embrace It
I know what you are thinking: I do not need to delegate. Admit it, you thought that when I covered 5 simple tasks and 5 complicated tasks to give to a freelancer too. I understand, I really do. Like many of us, lawyers are often resistant to task delegation. The thing is, delegation will save you time, stress, and money.
Delegation will save your sanity and possibly your life.
Reasons not to delegate = excuses to fail
I get it, you do not want to overload staff, you do not want to correct things, it would be faster if you did it yourself, trust comes hard to you. You are concerned about the costs associated with hiring support staff.
This is why delegation is so important. Not delegating creates a self perpetuating cycle of being overwhelmed and overworked. You will always be over-stressed and under-performing when you fail to take a few moments to think about what you need to do versus what someone can do for you. You simply cannot be your best without letting go. It really is better to pass those tasks on to someone better at them than you.
Benefits of delegation
You become better at what you do when you delegate the tasks interfering with performing at your best and most focused. By passing off those tasks that hinder your productivity, you prevent burn out and put hours back in your day. You become more profitable because you are no longer spending billable hours on work you cannot charge to the client. The fact that it takes skilled staff less time than it takes you to do the same work compounds the problem, and some of that staff could also be billed out.
Let’s take a small piece of that endless to do list and see what happens if you delegate it to a virtual legal assistant. We’ll use that clerical work you are doing that should be done by a legal assistant, such as drafting motions and responses, clearing your inbox of email, keeping track of your bar dues and CLE, and writing up your expense reports, as our example.
Let’s say that takes you an average of 2 hours each day in an average week. If you bill at $250/hr, that means you are losing $2500 each week to tasks you cannot bill to a client. Project that out over a few months, or the next year, and the impact on both your bottom line and potential client development becomes clear.
Delegation’s impact on both your bottom line and potential client development is clear.
Keeping in mind your concerns about having the space and overhead for full time staff, we will consider paying a virtual legal assistant ONLY for 5 hours a week instead, based on the reasonable assumption that it takes someone who specializes in those tasks half the time it takes you to do the same work. Such skilled talent is available to you, on retainer, for about $200/week.
Already you can see the benefits. By reclaiming 10 hours of your week back, you become more productive. By saving potentially $2300/week, you become more profitable. By delegating those tedious tasks you dislike so much, you become happier. By utilizing those hours for tasks you enjoy, you become less stressed. Impossible deadlines and demands are no longer impossible, and you become more responsive. As a solo practitioner, you now have more time for business development, client relationships, and networking. Most importantly, you are no longer spending Saturdays doing expense reports instead of watching your daughter rule the soccer field.
Delegation restores your passion.
I mean sure, it sounds awesome to face a potential $27,000/yr raise, but how do you go about it when you barely have time to think about it? Start by delegating tasks you are not good at or dislike to someone who specializes in that task. Trust that they can do it better, because they can. Formatting a pleading and running a table of authorities might take you several hours, but a trained legal assistant can do it in a fraction of that time. You should focus first on tasks that generate revenue, second on doing tasks that capitalize on your skills, and finally on tasks that you enjoy. It sounds remarkably simple — and it is.
Take how work actually flows into consideration, including responsibility for final review and filing. Communicate the needs and context effectively and trust the talent you delegate the task to will do it correctly and efficiently. Mentor but do not micromanage; you want to be engaged but not involved. Be realistic and forthright in your deadlines and make sure that urgent requests really are urgent. Remember, if you say a task is priority one, your assistant will stop doing everything else to complete it for you. Most importantly, be precise; capitalize on that effective communication you have developed.
When mistakes arise, utilize the opportunity to mentor and build that relationship. Things will not always go as intended or planned. Discuss such events as an observation rather than a problem, knowing communication sometimes does not go as intended, and talk about the results. What expectations did you convey? How did your assistant view them in context? What ideas do you both have to improve the process next time? Education will foster positive growth while accusations will stop teamwork and trust in its tracks. A good discussion after the project is complete, what I normally call a post-mortem, is constructive.
Delegation Builds Relationships
If the biggest block to delegating tasks is trusting the person you delegate to, the failure is in hiring qualified staff, lackluster communication, and/or poor training. A lack of trust promotes fear and fear has no place in a quality practice or business of any kind. Fear is demoralizing, promotes stagnation, and is ultimately fatal; fear increases workplace toxicity and stifles communication. Be open to new ideas and perspectives that inevitably emerge as a result of good teamwork. Your staff is professional; communicate your needs effectively and you need not fear mistakes or incompetence.
Delegation makes you a better manager. By spreading tasks appropriately, you gain credibility and your reputation for collaboration grows. Not only do you gain clients, you gain the support of other lawyers and staff. You demonstrate that you are a capable and effective leader when you know your particular skills, and those of your colleagues, and know how to build effective teams. A team that knows they are valued for the skills they bring to the table makes miracles happen; they are flexible and can respond to changes at breakneck speed. Your clients learn quickly that you are dedicated to their needs — and you are aware of their bottom line. Delegating to your team makes them stronger, more resilient, more creative — and most importantly, more invested. For a good leader, staff will go above and beyond; for a poor one in a toxic environment, they will do the bare minimum while they look for a new job.
If you are concerned that you still need to review everything you delegate, you do. Remember that the ABA’s Model Rules on Professional Responsibility cover delegation (Rule 5.1 covers delegation to other lawyers, while Rule 5.3 covers delegation to non lawyers) and have been incorporated into state bar ethics rules. Your team works under your aegis and you are ultimately responsible for the work — including the mistakes.
Your review should also take into consideration skill set. Review formatting, but mark things that look odd to be rechecked, don’t waste time counting spaces. Note if a Bluebook citation looks off, but let your paralegal do the deep dive. You should be focusing on the argument and proper case references.
As you develop your relationship and delegate tasks, you will come to trust their capabilities more and more. Give yourself time to review, and to allow your hand picked talent to rectify errors or make improvements, and take a final pass before you sign off. Meet with your team after to go over how things went.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier administrative and legal assistant services with a focus in Intellectual Property and Solo Practitioners. Ask her how she can help you make order from chaos.