Top Delegation Mistakes

Mistake

I was hard at work on my newly-released multimedia learning product 5 Foundations of Time Mastery for Attorneys and getting swamped with questions about a previous preview call on delegation skills and how to manage email. So, I thought I’d share the five top mistakes lawyers make when delegating. If you recognize yourself in any of these mistakes, it’s time to brush up on your skills!

1. Rushing. Making an assignment before thinking about the critical aspects of delegation (which are set forth in the next section) is almost a guarantee that you won’t get the end result that you want. Without sitting down to think about what the finished product should be, you may not even know what you really need. Rushing means that you may not select the best person to whom to delegate the task or that you don’t describe exactly what you need to know and/or how you want the results. When you rush, you’re highly likely not to get what you need. You end up frustrated and even more in the hole time-wise than you were when you started: now you have to do the work (or re-delegate it) and you’re starting late.

An example: Paula, a partner, asked Evan, a third-year associate, to draft a deposition outline. She told Evan that she didn’t want the outline to include questions, and that instead she wanted a subject matter outline. Evan took Paula’s direction literally and prepared an extensive outline organized by topic, with issues set out below each topic and supported by well-organized, highlighted, and flagged documents. Paula was livid, however, when she discovered that the outline didn’t include any questions. She had wanted Evan to skip the opening questions but to include questions that would get to the heart of the factual and legal issues – but because what she said was, “no questions,” Evan misunderstood. Should he have clarified before completing the outline? Absolutely. Paula, however, bears responsibility as well for a problem that could have been avoided had she simply paused to think about how best to describe the work product she wanted to receive.

2. Delegating too little. Lawyers are highly skilled and self-reliant, and too many of us believe that we should be in control of every aspect of our practices. But here’s some news: you are not the lone ranger. Failing to delegate costs you time. What’s worse, if you don’t give your staff and junior colleagues stretch projects that challenge and engage them, they won’t advance professionally. They’ll get bored and probably move on to another position, or worse yet you’ll find yourself surrounded by “zombies” who show up to the office everyday but are completely disengaged from their work.

3. Delegating too much. The first problem with over-delegating is, of course, that it presents numerous ethical issues. You cannot delegate legal work to non-lawyers without adequate supervision, and you should not delegate legal work to other lawyers without appropriate supervision.

Even when you’re delegating administrative tasks only, over-delegation results in poor practice management. You should not perform the day-to-day administrative tasks required for your practice, but you must be able to do so if you find yourself short-staffed. This doesn’t mean that you should be as skilled as your assistants at everything from filing to document formatting to mail room procedures, but you should know enough to muddle your way through.

4. Micromanaging. Micromanaging produces problems similar to those encountered with under-delegating, though the problems arise even more quickly and tend to be more acute. Micromanagement undermines the confidence and/or morale of the person to whom you’ve delegated because it sends the message that you don’t trust their judgment. That person may leave or become a zombie as previously described, but more likely he or she will become frustrated and resentful. Micromanagers often have a reputation as being impossible to please, and those who cannot be pleased often find that those who work with them quit trying.

Equally troublesome, micromanagement prevents the person doing the work from exercising his or her own judgment and expanding his or her professional development. Those who are micromanaged don’t have the opportunity to bring their perspective and ideas to the table, which means that the micromanager doesn’t have the chance to be wowed by what those who’ve been assigned the work could do if only they had the freedom.

5. Not managing enough. Failure to manage results in the same problems that rushing and over-delegation can produce. You may encounter ethical issues that could have been avoided with proper supervision, and you may not receive the work product that you wanted and expected.

Julie A. Fleming, J.D., A.C.C. provides business and executive coaching with an emphasis on business development, leadership development, time mastery and organization, and work/life integration. Julie holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching program and holds the Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential from the International Coach Federation. She is certified to administer the DISC(r) assessment, the Leadership Circle Profile 360, and the Leadership Culture Survey.

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