Handling the fear of delegating

Shawn Healy
BridgeTower Media Newswires

On the surface it makes logical sense that, in order to expand a legal practice, you need more and more people to do the tasks associated with the increased workload.

In reality, the logical need for delegation can be overshadowed by the emotional component of fear.

Specifically, the fear of something going wrong if someone else does the work (“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”) This is a common hurdle that solo practitioners who start to hire associates, paralegals or office staff face in a growing practice.

One of the advantages of being a solo is that you have control over the work that is done. Good, bad or indifferent the buck stops with the solo. Once the idea of expansion enters the realm of possibility, the solo must trade off the security of control for the growth potential of delegation.

That’s easier said than done. In my work with various attorneys, I have seen this handled in a number of ways. While my appraisal will be obvious, I leave it up to the reader to evaluate which one is best for him or her.

If you are faced with the option of expanding and need to rely on others, you have a few options.

Option 1: Don’t delegate, don’t expand, stay small. This is not necessarily a bad option. The idea of expanding a practice has both pros and cons. If the idea of growing your practice would negatively alter your work/life balance, would not get you closer to your ultimate goal, and you are not struggling with the amount of work you currently have, then consider keeping things as they are. Don’t expand your practice for bad reasons (to impress others, just to make more money, etc.).

Option 2: Hire people, but don’t delegate and continue to do everything yourself — only there’s more of it. This scenario involves going through half the steps of expanding a practice (hiring people to do the work) but not delegating work to them (not benefiting from having more personnel). It’s easy to see that this is not ideal.

Option 3: Delegate liberally and don’t look back. This option is the opposite end of the continuum from Option 2. This is often seen in a rapidly expanding practice in which little thought is dedicated to how to expand and what a size difference means for the operations of the practice. The potential result of this option is a lack of supervision for those taking on new tasks, a lack of confidence among the new staff (they question whether they are doing their work correctly), and wasted time seeking feedback and supervision, since it is not built into the organizational structure.

Option 4: Delegate, but then micromanage. Perhaps the most time-consuming option, delegating tasks only to micromanage your staff increases your workload dramatically. The promise of micromanagement is that it provides the illusion of protection from making mistakes. The reality of micromanagement is that it reinforces the fear that you, and only you, can prevent mistakes; your staff learns that they cannot trust their abilities, and it removes the teaching dynamic between associate and manager that would eventually produce a talented and capable associate/paralegal/office administrator.

Option 5: Delegate systematically, start small, provide supervision and feedback, evaluate progress, delegate more, and repeat. This approach to delegating recognizes the need for supervision (as does Option 4), the need for feedback (which is at the heart of teaching), and the need to make changes when necessary, all in a systematic way. This approach goes against what anxiety or fear tells you to do. Fear tells you to avoid the potential risk (i.e., making mistakes). Systematically approaching the risk, however, takes away some of the intensity of that fear, helps you feel more prepared to handle the feared outcome (which is always more productive than trying to avoid the feared outcome because you usually cannot avoid it forever), and increases resilience.

So let’s assume that, for whatever reason, expanding your law practice is the option that interests you most. If you find yourself struggling with the discomfort of delegating work, here are a few tips.

Tip 1: Expect an increased investment in time and energy at the beginning that will eventually produce the outcome you desire. You did not earn your J.D. overnight, so don’t expect the process of expanding your law practice to be quick. Any venture that is worthwhile will require time and energy.

Tip 2: Plan ahead. Talk to other solo practitioners who have successfully made the transition from a one-person operation to a multiple-person practice. Ask about what helped and what didn’t, and be sure to ask about areas that you fear the most.

Tip 3: Expect bumps in the road. With any change to the status quo there are bound to be mistakes or “growing edges.” This is normal and should be interpreted as part of the process, not the confirmation of your worst fears (that you should never have done this to begin with).

Tip 4: Develop a structure of regular supervision and feedback both to catch potential mistakes early and to use mistakes as valuable learning opportunities.

Tip 5: Have a plan to respond to mistakes. Imagine the most common mistakes that you fear might occur due to delegation. Then plan out concrete steps for how you would actually respond to those situations. The very act of planning how to respond to a feared situation reduces the intensity of the fear. Anxiety needs ambiguity to thrive.

You cannot control whether mistakes happen. You can control how you plan for and respond to mistakes. That is a much better use of your time and energy.


Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts. He also writes and presents on a variety of topics germane to the practice of law. He can be contacted at shawn@lclma.org.