Why Partners Continue to Underdelegate

The benefits of delegating are clear. Some of the main ones are that there is:

  • Learning, career progression and enhanced motivation for the juniors
  • Potentially lower costs to clients (or higher margins for firms)
  • Freeing up of partner time to do more business development or contribute other added value activities

But delegation is not happening to the extent that it should be. Just ask yourself what proportion of work currently done by partners could be done by more junior lawyers? It’s quite a high figure isn’t it?

Here is a typical list of what partners say when I ask them about why they don’t delegate more:

  • I don’t have anybody to delegate to – they’re not experienced enough
  • It’s quicker to do it myself
  • I prefer to do the work myself than spend my time supervising others
  • The client wants me to do their work

Here’s a list of what they usually don’t say, but I think are the underlying reasons for poor delegation:

  • I’d rather stay in my comfort zone and spend time working on matters (eg drafting etc)
  • I want my recorded hours to be impressive, because I’m concerned about my job security
  • It’s threatening to my ego to know that more junior lawyers can do what I do

So what can firms do to address this problem?

  1. Change what you measure and how you reward partners. One firm introduced measures of matter profitability and circulated the partner league tables. It wasn’t the big billers who came top – it was the partners managing the bigger teams and delegating more of their work. At the same time, reduce the emphasis on chargeable hours as the main measure of performance
  2. Introduce 180 feedback. So partners get upwards feedback on their management performance. This can be anonymised to encourage an openness of communication. The feedback can be delivered by a neutral person.
  3. Provide delegation and supervision training. There’s an art to briefing somebody properly. Many of us, particularly if we’re somewhat stressed, miss out some key aspects of the briefing. We’ve found that it can be useful to ask the person being briefed what they’ve heard and what they’re going to do. This helps the person briefing spot any messages that need to be clarified or reinforced.
  4. Introduce checklists/processes to act as guides for junior lawyers. If there are any anxieties about junior lawyers making any slips, why not provide them with more guidelines. It could be a very good use of any non-chargeable time to produce such checklists.

Many commentators believe there’s been a paradigm shift in the legal market. Clients will continue to be more assertive in the relationship. The smart firms are looking for ways of doing better work and offering better value. Getting better at delegating is part of the answer.

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