Learn to be a better delegator and maximize work efficiency

Sibyl Dunlop
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Among the many skills that they don’t teach you in law school, delegating has taken me the longest to figure out. It doesn’t come naturally to many of us -- Type-A folks used to controlling everything.

In high school science class, I volunteered to “type” our lab reports so that I could edit and fix everyone else’s work. It’s hard to delegate when one thinks that their work is the best. But this profession (and an ever-expanding scope of work) has forced me to improve this skill. And I wanted to share some of my failures and successes on this front.

My first foray into delegation came when I showed up at my law firm and met my assistant. She’s a wonderful woman who worked as a legal assistant since before I was born. I knew I could learn a lot from her. But I was also used to completing administrative tasks on my own.

I worked at a non-profit before attending law school, and no one made copies for me. I could use the copy machine and fix the inevitable paper jams as well. Then, as a law clerk, I was in charge of several administrative office tasks, including making the office coffee.

In many respects, I delighted in performing administrative tasks early in my career. I had no idea how to write a brief, but I knew how to make a bang-up binder or collate copies. I wanted to show these folks that I knew how to do something. But over time, as I became increasingly busy, I realized how amazing it was to ask your assistant to put together shell discovery requests or proof and send out a letter.

I also realized that different generations can rely on an assistant in different ways -- and that’s OK. Some senior attorneys in my office will dictate memos to their assistant or ask him or her to type their handwritten notes. I’ve had a laptop since college and, frankly, write better when I type (the speed of typing allows me to keep up with my brain). So I’ll draft letters into the body of an email and shoot them to my assistant to finalize and format. Most of our junior attorneys all enter their own time using our software’s timers. But we all still ask our assistants to proofread our entries.

As I’ve grown up in this profession, I’ve been afforded other opportunities to delegate, to paralegals and then to more junior attorneys on a case. I’ve stumbled on occasion (not making my expectations clear or asking more of someone than they were capable of taking on) but I’ve also tried to learn from these stumbles. Work-efficiency guru Michael Hyatt taught me that there are five levels of delegation.

Level 1: Do as I say. When you’re asking someone to go find a case that supports your premise or you’re asking someone to update a non-disclosure agreement for a client.

Level 2: Research and report. This level of delegation works when you haven’t yet made a decision as to the best course. For example, you can ask someone to research the case law in a particular area so that, together, you can decide on the next step.

Level 3: Research and recommend. The same as above, except the delegee offers a recommendation as to the next step (along with the pros and cons of each choice).

Level 4: Decide and inform. When you trust someone to make a decision and keep you updated. Frequently, if a junior attorney is running discovery, I’ll just ask for updates regarding document review and production schedules (and ask them to let me know if anything happens to throw us off course).

Level 5: Act independently. When you turn a case over to a junior colleague because you trust them to run with it.

The trick, I have realized, is to let people know which level of delegation you’re expecting. It’s easy to get frustrated with someone when you think they are supposed to research and report and they think they are supposed to act independently. And knowing these levels of delegation has also helped me when more senior folks delegate something to me. I now know to ask, “Do you want me to run with this or check in so we can make strategic decisions together?”

I was on vacation recently. Last year, I wrote an article about how hard it was to leave my job behind. Clients were calling me, and I didn’t want to let them down (or even let them know I was out of the office). This year, I did better. I have colleagues in the office who also have strong relationships with our clients and were on top of things in my absence. I checked emails, but forwarded tasks to others in the office (and when Im in the office, I am happy to reciprocate).

In other words, one year later, I’ve learned something. I’m a better delegator. And it was a better vacation as a result.


Sybil Dunlop is a partner at Greene Espel PLLP in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.