By Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

At the brink of the twentieth century, the legal profession looked very different than it does today. Most attorneys practiced alone and the idea of support staff was almost unheard of. In those times, delegation was not an important skill to be cultivated.

With the invention of the typewriter, it became possible to separate the more clerical aspects of the practice of law and delegate those to a secretary. Thus was born the attorney-secretary model that has endured for most of the twentieth century.

With the ability to electronically store and retrieve documents, specialization in the secretarial ranks evolved. As a result, less work was dependent on the special skills of the attorney and there was a significant increase in mid-level responsibility. As attorneys merged and adopted more advanced business practices, they saw the economic benefits of pooling and cross-utilizing their staff. And so was born the team concept, closely followed by the idea of leveraging staff to increase profits.

This is still a fledgling notion for many solo and small firm attorneys, most of who are over-qualified to do much of the work they do – and believe that there is something inherently wrong with using assistants. Many attorneys still try to do it all themselves with the mistaken notion that this is the best path to profitability. In fact, most attorneys do not achieve their full income potential by being a team of one. It takes the proper mix of staff to maximize profitability.

This is where the fine art of delegation comes into play. There are two areas of potential delegation in the legal office – the “hard” and the “soft.” The transaction, verdict, negotiation or contract is the “hard” product. The service, or client communication, makes up the “soft” side.

In delegating the soft tasks, the first step is to choose a “designated hitter.” This is a key person (an associate, legal assistant or secretary) who can be available to answer non-substantive questions (80 percent of your clients’ concerns are non-substantive) when you are unavailable. Introduce this person to clients early on and ensure that he is included in important meetings and has access to information that can support clients.

Assign your designated hitter the task of calling clients on a regular basis to keep them informed of any movement on their case. In this way, you ensure that your clients feel taken care of and pre-empt many client issues that could turn into crises. Remember that clients may have no basis to judge the excellence of your technical skills and will therefore rely on how well they feel they were treated to determine if you are a “good” attorney.

Use the following rules as a guide to delegating both hard and soft tasks.

Specific. If you have a high level of trust in the person to whom you are delegating and this is a frequently delegated task, you can be less specific. But if this is the first time the task is delegated, you must be very specific about all the actions to be taken, possibly putting them in writing. Furnish samples of finished work when possible. When the task involves client communication, discuss how the client should be treated.

Measurable. Establish exactly what you intend for the outcome. If possible, quantify the result. State it clearly and ask for it to be repeated back to check for accuracy. In soft delegation, the desired outcome is always a satisfied, well-taken care of client.

Accountable. Select a person who will take ownership of the project or task. This must be someone who will communicate results in a timely fashion and will not try to cover up or require constant attention and a lot of reassurance.

Realistic. Create checkpoints along the way to monitor the progress and quality of the work. Allow extra time for mistakes that are part of the initial learning curve – just make sure you have a way to catch them. Do not delegate something that is not humanly possible to accomplish in a given time frame. Make sure you provide adequate resources to get the job done – if time is short, more assistance may be required.

Timeline. State very clearly the date for completion, any checkpoint dates and the impact of not meeting the deadline. Remember that the first time any task or project is undertaken, it will take longer to accomplish. Expect increased efficiency with repetition.

By delegating, you are transferring tasks to other employees who work at a lower cost to the client. With supervision, well-qualified legal assistants can assist in pre-interviewing witnesses, collecting facts, acquiring records and drafting documents. They can also provide a comfort zone to the client when you are unavailable or when it is not cost-effective for you to spend time on a particular task. Your time is then spread out so that you can perform the work that requires your training and ultimately work fewer hours on more files. As a result, you become more profitable and your clients pay less.

If you are a sole practitioner who does not have the means to leverage yourself with a staff, it is possible to self-delegate. Studies reveal that grouping like-tasks together, and doing them in the same time period, results in increased efficiency. The same rule applies to the production of legal and other work in your practice. To be more efficient, delegate like-tasks to yourself at specific time periods. For example, resolve to only sort mail or do clerical typing between 4:00 – 5:00 p.m., rather than letting it interrupt and distract you throughout the day.

Providing clients with personalized service does not mean that you have to do everything yourself. Clients hire you because they trust you and because they know you will ensure the work is done to your high standards. If you can manage the art of delegating, you can take better control of your professional time, become more profitable and provide clients with better service at a lower cost. It’s a win-win proposition.

When delegating work, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does this require my special skills?
  2. Could someone else do this?
  3. How often will this task be done in the future?
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