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Whether your motivation is altruism or greed, effective delegation is a must if you want to expand your firm, boost your income and preserve what’s left of your sanity 

One of my favorite clients is a very successful real estate attorney whom—in the interest of client retention and, perhaps, litigation avoidance—I will call “Skip.” He and four associate attorneys comprise the real estate department at the law firm of Halt & Lame.
Last week, as I made my way down the quiet hallway toward Skip’s office for our monthly consultation, I passed the doors of his four subordinates. Busby was balancing his checkbook on an otherwise barren desktop. Lipschutz seemed to be reading something, but when he saw me walk by he quickly slid it into his center drawer. Toole was making sure that his business card holder was properly positioned. Sloan was asleep.
The calm of the hallway gradually gave way to the commotion from Skip’s office, rising to a din as I neared the end of the hall. Standing in his doorway, I thought I had wandered onto the trading floor at a commodities exchange.
Skip was standing at his cluttered desk, his telephone receiver cradled on his shoulder while he rummaged through a thick file. He yelled something at his paralegal, who was on her hands and knees in the corner, trying to keep a ten-page blueprint from rolling up while she scribbled notes on a legal pad. Skip’s computer beeped: “SOL—Can you meet with Savage Crushing and me today at 1:30?—BFD.”
From behind me, Skip’s secretary announced that Mr. Yee was still waiting in the lobby, she was taking an early lunch and, oh, by the way, the people from Blue Sky Development were on their way over to review the purchase agreement. Suddenly, all was still. Skip’s jaw dropped. The receiver fell to the floor. The only other sound in the room was the slow staccato of his paralegal tapping her forehead against a table leg.
“Blue Sky!” he gasped. His eyes shot down at the paralegal. “But that’s not due until next Tuesday, is it? I mean, it is next Tuesday—right?”
“I guess not,” she murmured.
More silence. He looked up, for the first time noting my arrival. His taut facial expression instantly took on a tranquil quality, and his frenzied pallor was replaced by the warm glow of human kindness.
“Hello, Mr. Hulcher. Are we meeting today?”
“Well … we don’t have to,” I replied, sensing that I may have come at a bad time.
“No, no, let’s meet. It wouldn’t be fair to inconvenience you and disrupt your schedule. Deirdre, could you excuse us?”
Skip cleared several bushels of files from his conference table and then excused himself to get me a beverage.
Upon his return, he lamented, “I haven’t done any marketing this month; I can’t find the time. I can’t even take care of the clients I have, much less bring in any new ones. Lately I’ve even been turning work away.”
“Listen, Skip,” I said, “what about those guys down the hall? Why don’t you give them some of this stuff?”
He shook his head. “That’s no good. I’ve tried, but here’s the problem. I gave Toole a file last week, but he lost it, so I ended up doing it myself. I was going to give something to Busby yesterday, but I told the client a month ago that I’d have it ready today, and Busby doesn’t know what ‘today’ means. Lipschutz could probably have gone to P&Z for me yesterday, but I really get a kick out of those meetings, so I went. And I could have let Sloan take care of this deed of trust for Rickets Construction, but old man Rickets wanted me to handle it personally. So here I am.”

The Price of Hogging Files
Among busy, successful attorneys who possess—and squander —rainmaking potential, Skip has a common problem: failure to effectively delegate. Non-delegation, whether intentional or incidental, carries a hefty price tag:

  • If you don’t delegate well, you find yourself bogged down with “busy work” that someone—anyone—else could do.
  • Associates who could and should handle lesser files are left with light workloads, causing partners to question their worth and to revisit the firm’s recruiting commitments.
  • The partner-associate mentoring relationship that’s essential to firm and individual growth goes wanting.
  • You have little time to do things that only you can do (develop new clients and referral relationships, cultivate closer ties with existing clients, cross-sell, spend time with your family, etc.).
  • Thus, client relations—not to mention domestic relations —suffer, and companies and individuals who might have become your clients wind up writing big checks to some other lawyer.
  • And you and the firm lose money.

The Causes of Poor Delegation
Inadequate delegation is usually due either to poor planning or to fear. Planning-related causes include:
     Procrastination. If you wait until the day before a deadline to begin working on a matter, it’s too late to delegate. You almost have to do it yourself, because you don’t have time to assign it to someone else, let them take longer to finish it than you would, review their work, and send it back to them to fix.
Ignoring opportunity cost. It’s true that giving a job to someone who might foul it up may inflict a loss of time and perhaps money. But, considering the higher value of your time than your associates’, doing everything yourself is even costlier.
     Time mismanagement. You’ve probably said this to yourself a few times: “This is a half-hour project, and it’ll take longer than that for me to explain it to someone else and then wait for them to do it. So I’ll just do it myself.” That’s a sensible approach, right? Think again. You probably don’t have just one half-hour job; more likely, you have a ton of them that add up to a major commitment of time and energy. But if you bundle up all of your little projects and assign them to someone else, you might open up a huge block of time for more pressing, satisfying and profitable work.
     Ego. Many well-meaning attorneys take the position that, since a client sought them out to handle a particular matter, they and only they must do the work. But clients don’t necessarily come to you because they want you, per se, to work for them; rather, clients come to you because they have a problem to be fixed. They may initially contend that you’re the only one who can prepare their living will (especially if the referral source touted you), but if you tell them that the attorney down the hall can do it (a) more quickly, (b) less expensively and/or (c) just as well—under your supervision—there’s a very good chance they will allow you to delegate their matter.
    Failure to give up fun things. Granted, filling in the little blanks on a general power of attorney may be the only thing in life that really gets you going, but give it up anyway. A paralegal, secretary or, for that matter, the 20-year-old redhead who you swear winked at you yesterday from behind the Lancôme counter at Macy’s could probably do it better and give you time for better things.
     Fear. Ways in which fear discourages delegation are fewer in number but are more diabolical:

  • Fear of losing control. Yes, by giving a file to someone else you do lose direct control—of that file. But consider this, control freaks: In delegating work to another attorney, you trade control of one lousy file for control of an entire human being. Now, don’t you feel better?
  • Fear of low inventory. Partners often hang on to even the most mind-numbing work just so they’re guaranteed of some billable activity. Consequently, they proofread deeds of trust instead of letting some first-year associate do it, and instead of acting like a partner by drumming up more business. Which leads us to the Big Fear …
  • Fear of having to market. If you give away all of your low-level work, you may suddenly have a lot of time on your hands. You can only read the paper, do the Jumble, eat lunch, play Minesweeper or go to the mall for so long before your partners wise up and say, “Hey, you with the clean desk, go out and catch some fresh fish before we forget how to give you a draw.”

Delegation Tips
One would hope that, by now, you’re aware of the costs and causes of poor delegation and are at least mildly motivated to turn up your game a notch. Here are some suggestions:
     Be a mentor. Simply dropping a file on an associate’s desk and saying, “I’m a little busy today; take care of this appeal by 5:00, okay? If you have any questions, I’ll be at the club,” does not constitute effective delegation. Take time to teach and train. Discuss the matter in some detail and how you would approach it. Talk about the client, their expectations and some of their less endearing quirks. When you’re done, ask the delegatee how he or she plans to handle this matter. This has two benefits: First, you might learn something, and, second, you’ll find out if the delegatee understands anything you’ve just said.
    Create your own “practice group.” And use it. Shanghai as many lawyers and staff as you think it’ll take to handle your disposable workload, tell them you own them, and meet with them once or twice a week. Ask your secretary to make a master case list and go through every item at every practice group meeting. Assign files as soon as they’re opened (or, better yet, include an associate for at least part of the meeting with the client, so he/she can hear first-hand what needs to be done and, at least in theory, get right on it), to minimize eleventh-hour crunches that make delegating impossible.
    Cultivate expertise. If you attract a lot of similar matters, give them all to the same underling. That way, you only have to endure one major orientation session (as opposed to going through the same drill with five different lawyers), saving yourself a lot of time and creating a dependable mini-specialist in the process.
    Provide positive and negative feedback. Don’t leave your delegates guessing as to how you appraise their work. Immediate and appropriate feedback is essential to the learning process and to cultivating reliable, lasting delegation relationships.

Norm Hulcher

Hulcher & Hays, LLC is a Phoenix-based law firm marketing consultant (

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Filed Under: Featured StoriesPractice Management

About the Author: Hulcher & Hays, LLC is a Phoenix-based law firm marketing consultant (

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