Essential practice habits — delegation

Delegation is one essential habit that delivers multiple benefits. It has the power to turn an overloaded to-do list into a manageable workload.

Mary looks at her to-do list and feels a wave of stress wash over her. She wanted more time for the Allen file and now that’s not going happen. I should have enlisted the assistance of a junior days ago! Time to cancel the dinner date with Nancy — again.

One simple practice could have reduced Mary’s stress and prevented a cancelled dinner date — delegation. 

Delegation is one essential habit that delivers multiple benefits. It improves leadership abilities. Goal setting, communication, planning and feedback skills get honed. You get more done. Delegation has the power to turn an overloaded to-do list into a manageable workload.

It allocates work to the most appropriate level — senior lawyers focus on the more complex work while juniors hone their skills on projects at their level or just beyond. The highest form of delegation, teaming on files, establishes a collaborative approach that helps lawyers more quickly develop into skilled legal counsel.

Morgan Camley, a partner with Miller Thomson LLP, shared her views on the benefits of teaming, saying, “When junior and senior lawyers work together as a team, there is an important two-way exchange of ideas and experience, which can get lost if juniors are only used in a piecemeal way.”

“Juniors know the case and the client so can offer fresh insights. They also benefit from seeing a matter from start to finish,” Camley said. “Working in a purposeful team environment requires that a case be mapped out early on so that lawyers can be fit in at the appropriate level. This kind of early case mapping leads to clearer and more efficient decision-making. Finally, attention to teams means that each lawyer, paralegal and staff person has a role and a stake in successfully moving the matter forward. It creates a respectful environment where each part of the whole is recognized and valued."

Despite the advantages many lawyers still don’t delegate.  

“Lawyers tend to be highly motivated, highly competent individuals who have attained their professional status as a result of the hard work they’ve done on their own,” Allison McCollum, partner with Witten LLP, explains. “This makes delegation quite a foreign concept.”

McCollum adds that “the development of delegation skills is essential in order to best serve our clients with cost-effective and timely service and to maintain our own well-being by recognizing we can’t successfully be all things to all people all the time.”

Not delegating hurts law firms and legal practices:

  • It squanders learning opportunities;
  • It overloads lawyers and increases stress levels; and
  • It reinforces silo’ed law firm cultures.
  • Put bluntly, if you aren’t delegating, you aren’t the lawyer you could be. So what can be done? 

Watch for these stumbling blocks:

False assumptions.

You might think: The client won’t want someone else on the file. Think again. “To clients, our ability to delegate effectively is not optional,” says Richard Bereti, a partner with Harper Grey LLP. “Staffing a file properly means using the right person at the right price point. This is at the heart of efficiency and our clients naturally expect it.”

Short-term thinking and poor planning.

Some lawyers have told me they are reluctant to invest time in delegation. Others are simply poor planners caught in a never-ending cycle of chasing deadlines.

Control issues.

No one else will do this as well as I will. You might be very good at something and that doesn’t mean you are the most appropriate person to do it.

Self esteem issues.

I am embarrassed about the state of the file. One associate shared that when she was able to let go of the pretence of perfection she became an effective delegator and mentor.

No one to delegate to.

Sometimes, there is no one to delegate to. In these circumstances, retaining the services of an outsourced paralegal or research lawyer can provide valuable support. Ellen Vandergrift, a legal researcher with a cross-Canada practice, told me she helps her clients with “everything from drafting applications, briefs and factums to ghostwriting papers and presentations.” She notes that often her most important contribution is to act as a sounding board for lawyers to prepare for their appearances in court.

Delegation isn’t only for the most senior lawyers. Once you are experienced with a discrete task and can teach it, you are ready to delegate. Amaan Gangji, an associate with Lawson Lundell LLP, shared his experience.

“Ultimately, I learned that you can delegate the work, but you can’t delegate the responsibility,” he says.

“In my practice, I am typically delegating in the context of M&A transactions involving multiple working pieces. Throughout a transaction, the client will call me first with any questions. I had to learn to quickly get up to speed on another lawyer’s work product, especially if it was dealing with an issue from outside my area of comfort. I also came to appreciate that delegation ultimately serves our clients: They receive good value for the services we provide while benefiting from experience across a range of practice areas and quality control from a point of contact familiar with how these pieces will be working together.”

Here are five steps to activate delegation in your practice:

  • In the initial meeting with a new client, present the advantages of involving juniors on the file.
  • Regularly schedule time for planning. Ask yourself What can I delegate?
  • Start the week by delegating items from your to-do list.
  • When delegating, ensure the junior has sufficient capacity to handle the work. Ask them to share their understanding of the assignment following your instructions. Schedule a check-in with them at a midway point to answer questions and review progress.
  • Observe and seek advice from friends and colleagues who delegate well.

Delegation presents a valuable opportunity. Take advantage. Expect some bumps and difficulties along the way and persevere. Once you get this habit down, you won’t want to let it go.


Allison Wolf is lawyer coach with Shift Works Strategic and founder of the blog Drawing on 20 years as a legal marketing professional and 13 years as a certified executive coach, she helps lawyers build successful and fulfilling legal practices. Her mission is “to help make law a career lawyers recommend to their children.”

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