One of the more challenging skills lawyers need to master is the ability to delegate–to younger partners, associates, and non-lawyer staff, and in this marketplace, to third party providers, like document reviewers and e-discovery firms.  And even to clients. 

But there is a lot of internal resistance in many lawyers to mastering that skill.  Perfectionism, wanting to stay in control and insecurity can sabotage efforts to delegate even when delegation is clearly the best route.  What if the delegee messes up and the delegator is left being held responsible?  What if the delegee performs the delegation in an entirely different way than the delegator would–how will s/he be able to evaluate the result? What if the delegee runs with the matter and excludes the delegator when s/he should be involved in making the critical decisions?  Or what if the delegee actually does a better job than the delegator might have done–will the delegator get at least some of the credit for that success or will s/he be bypassed altogether next time a similar assignment arises?.

With enough of these kinds of worries, lawyers can find themselves with overwhelming work and immense client bills because they are trying to "do it all."

While understandable, many of these concerns can be alleviated by simply delegating well.  The real problem often lies in the delegator’s uncertainty about which part of a task is being reserved for his/her decision and which part is being delegated.

A good first step is to set up a four-part decision matrix.  This matrix identifies which issues you as the delegator retain ultimate control of and which ones others can make. The first two boxes contain the decisions you must make.  The second two boxes contain decisions that can be delegated to others.

In the first box are decisions that you have to make, and that no one else can, whether you are a managing partner or a junior associate.  For senior managers, these decisions bear on issues such as strategic planning and firm leadership.  For example, should the firm expand into another geographical or practice area market?  For the junior associate, the decision may be whether or not an assignment has been completed to the associate’s satisfaction or which paralegal should provide assistance. 

In order to make the decision within this box, the delegator can consult with anyone who they think might have relevant information–the MP might ask the COO to confirm the start-up costs of a new office and/or the head of recruitment to ascertain the availability and cost of hiring expertise, but the delegator must make clear that s/he is seeking information only.  S/he explicitly reserves the right to make the final decision.  Similarly with the junior associate, who might go to other associates, staff or third parties to get the information s/he needs to feel confidant about the integrity of his/her work or the choice of a paralegal, making it clear that s/he seeks information only.

The second box is also for decisions that the delegator must ultimately make him/herself but in this box are decisions that come to the delegator as recommendations.  These recommendations are the products of an explicit or customary process that carries an assumption of expertise from the recommender, and are therefore usually approved.  For example, the executive committee may put compensation increases in this box.  There is an established method for those increases to be recommended–a compensation committee compares evaluations or an individual reviews annual performance–and while the delegator may ask questions or clarify reasoning, those recommendations are usually accepted.  For the junior associate, the recommendation may come from his/her administrative aid, recommending that a certain format be followed for documents or that a specific time-keeping procedure be used.  Or a third party document reviewer may recommend a certain procedure to follow for the best outcome in the document review.  These are recommendations the associate will likely accept unless s/he has a strong over-riding reason not to follow them.

In the third box are those decisions that are made by the delegee, but which the delegator is apprised of.  Guidelines are usually set up to give the delegee some limited discretion.  The professional development director, for example, may be empowered to determine which and how many trainings, conferences or other events lawyers and staff may attend at the firm’s expense within a specified budget.  While the PD director reports to his/her supervisor quarterly and the firm management annually on those decisions and costs, his/her decisions are usually considered final by management until the guidelines change.  Similarly, the junior associate empowers a paralegal  to do specific authorized filings, only notifying the associate that they have been made. 

In the fourth box are those decisions that are made by delegees and that require no reporting to the delegator.  These are decisions with usually well-defined guidelines and little room for discretion.  The executive committee’s HR director is empowered to enroll new employees in one of the approved benefits packages (determined based on recommendations and decisions made according to the second box) and s/he has no obligation to inform the committee of those enrollments.  The associate may have decisions relating to client meals, for example, in this box.  His/her AA is empowered to decide which of several approved catering companies to use and which menu of several to provide, with no expected review or revision of those decisions. 

Problems arise when the managing partner insists on reviewing and individually approving each of the benefits programs that new employees are enrolled in or a young associate second-guesses an experienced AA’s choice of caterer for the client lunch.  Yes, there might be some incremental improvement because of the delegator’s review but it’s not worth the investment–any positive is offset by the terrible impact on general efficiency and morale.  If all decisions are subject to review and revision, progress halts and no one feels empowered or trusted to be responsible for the matters at hand.

There are caveats, of course.  Confidence in recommenders may require some experience to build, and guidelines are sometimes revealed to have unintended consequences.  But these and other obstacles are temporary ones that often can’t be overcome until the rubber hits the road.  Refusing to delegate does not move anything forward.

On the other side of poor delegation are matters that should not be delegated but are: executive boards who tell the COO to determine whether associates will get bonuses, or associates who let the client tell them which conclusion to reach in their research.  The delegator may be looking to avoid responsibility for the decision or to keep from having to make a difficult one or may simply not feel qualified to make the decision.  Determining who should make the ultimate decision is critical here.

Once it is clear who the decision-maker is on each issue at hand and that is made clear to all parties involved, delegation becomes a simpler task.

What does your decision matrix look like?  Do others in the firm agree on which issues are in each box?  Executive coaching can make giant strides towards easing decision bottlenecks and improving morale.  Call us for a proposal.