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Plugging Profitability Leaks: A Simple Tip for Great Delegation

Posted in Legal Project Management

UPDATE: This article won the BigLaw Pick of the Week award!

We’ve long known that vague, incomplete or misunderstood instructions from partners to associates is a prime source of profitability leaks — revenue lost because of all the time spent on reinventing the wheel, because  of do-overs, and because of significant amounts of time written down or eventually written off.    We’ve also long known that an amazingly simple delegation improvement technique can help reduce write-downs of time by up to 18%.

The Trick Anyone Can Master

What is this marvelous magic trick?  Whenever a task is assigned and instructions are given, the assigning partner should simply ask the associates to immediately play back their understanding of what they are being asked to do: task content, task priority, starting points or resources, client budget, level of accountability, time frame, questions.

This in the moment replay doesn’t have to be a hostile cross-examination or test.  On the contrary, a friendly reality-check to assure alignment of both parties’ understanding and expectations works just fine: “Jack, just to make sure we’re on the same page, take a moment to play back to me your understanding of the assignment we just discussed.”   This quick exchange allows for any missed information or misunderstandings to be cleared up before work gets underway, and it assures that the partner’s implicit intentions are made explicit.  It’s simple, it’s constructive, it’s collaborative, and, it turns out, it’s very, very effective.

“I Would Never Do That!”

At a recent Legal Project Management training workshop, however, several partners expressed disdain for this basic suggestion for materially improving delegation.  “Just uses up a lot of extra time!” said one. “Not my job to mollycoddle associates,” said another. “The best learning comes through trial-and-error. That’s how I learned!” A surprising protest came from another partner: “This idea is just incredibly demeaning to associates. Asking them to parrot back instructions is patronizing. It treats our younger lawyers like they’re stupid, like they can’t follow simple directions.”

This is Delegation?

All the partners in the workshop agreed that their own delegation skills were just fine, thank you, an opinion we find is generally shared by partners: they think they are good communicators: clear, succinct, focused, thorough, non-threatening.

But the people they delegate to often think just the opposite. Frankly, a lot of partners’ delegation skills are abysmal. Awhile back we were given the transcription of instructions an associate, eager to assure that she “got it right,” recorded on a pocket recorder. It sounded like an FBI wiretap of the mafia: “Get me, you know, that thing we talked about, and, you know, talk to that guy, and write up something I can, you know, show to the people, so we can move ahead with the other thing, you know, the one about that new standard. And you know I need this ASAP.”  Er, what?

What Do the Associates Think?

Back at our workshop, some of the associates attending this workshop were shifting uncomfortably in their seats, so I turned to them. “How would you feel about an informal feedback loop every time you were assigned work?”

“I’d love it!” exclaimed one. “A lot of our partners think associates are all just the same – that we all have the same background information on the matter, that we all have the same levels of expertise. So their instructions come in a kind of flood of verbal shorthand without any testing for comprehension. Frankly, I often struggle to figure out just what they do want. Sometimes their instructions are kind of simplistic, and sometimes they absolutely go over my head, and I have to ask other associates what they think the partner was saying.”

“I don’t think it’s insulting at all,” said another. “Many associates don’t want to ask questions because they are afraid it will make them look dumb. If double-checking our understanding was a routine step in delegation, it would take a lot of that fear away. Rather than being demeaning, I think it is respectful of us and our desire do work right.”

An experienced senior associate put in the final word: “I work with several partners, all doing the same kind of matters.  And they all have their own unique way of doing things. But they all think everybody does it their way. I hate it when I get chewed out or my time gets written down not because my work was lousy, but because it wasn’t done the way a particular partner prefers.  Anything that would help assure that I understand how each partner wants things done will go a long way in improving both the quality and efficiency of our work.”

So true, so true.  And, why would partners – business owners of their firm — resist a simple way to reduce write-downs of associate time by 18% and thereby amp up profitability?


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