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The Art Of Delegating

by Kathleen Brady

Delegating is an often overlooked, yet essential skill to master as you advance in your career. Whether you are a first year associate delegating to paralegals and secretaries, or a partner delegating to hordes of associates, the sooner you learn how to delegate, the faster you will be able to gain leverage, streamline your efforts and restore some sanity to your life.

The purpose of delegating is to enable you to dispose of simpler tasks to free you up to perform tasks which are of greater value to your organization. The time it takes up front to orchestrate a plan of action, explain the desired outcome, and monitor the progress of each subordinate ultimately requires less time than it would take to execute the entire action plan yourself. That is, if it is done correctly.

Understand that there is a difference between assigning a task and delegating one. If there are multiple directives, required check-ins and a significant amount of supervision time, you have merely assigned the task. This method will cause you to become a choke point and slow down the work process. Nothing will render you expendable or non-essential faster than being seen as the bottleneck, responsible for missed deadlines and an underutilized team.

The truth is you probably can do most tasks better and faster. But if you hold on to the belief that there is a correlation between the amount of control you exert over a project and the quality of the results, you will always want to micromanage everything. As you move up in the associate ranks, additional responsibilities will require your attention. With the same amount of hours in each day and multiplying responsibilities, you simply won’t have time to micromanage every thing. You must learn to use every available resource to get all the work done.

Accept the fact that occasionally, it will take more time to explain to someone else how to do an assignment than it would take to do it yourself. Delegate it anyway. The next time, it will take less time to explain. More importantly, you will be developing your team for the future and, thus ultimately gain the desired leverage and control you are seeking.

Consider the following scenario: you assign a research topic to a junior associate which you estimate would take 90 minutes to complete if you did it yourself. It takes you 30 minutes to brief the junior associate and an additional hour to review the work. Because you aren’t saving any time by delegating the assignment, you consider doing it yourself. However, the next time you need a similar research project from the associate it will only take you 10 minutes to explain and 30 minutes to review. Over the course of the two assignments you actually saved 50 minutes by assigning it rather than doing it yourself both times. If you take the long view, it becomes clear how much time you can save through delegation.

People rise or fall to the level of expectation. Delegate tasks and hold people accountable. The better your team does under your leadership, the more value you will bring to your organization.

To become a more effective delegator, use the four step process outlined below.


Every successful project/deal/case needs defined and approved goals, a committed team and a viable plan of action that can effectively accommodate change. Invest the time at the beginning to think through the project. This will enable you to clearly define the goals and objectives, assign the tasks and assess the progress to ensure you get the end result you want, which will ultimately save time. Consider:

  • What is the goal or desired end result?
  • How many people do I need to accomplish the goal? What type of skills do they need to possess? 
  • Can some of the tasks be carried out in parallel?
  • Will delegating critical tasks to someone else free me up to troubleshoot as problems arise without delaying the project? 
  • Are there competing projects with higher priorities that are going to take up key resources?


      Identify the person(s) who can get the job done. (Granted, sometimes you have no choice of team members. In that instance, the next steps are even more critical!) Be sure to get a commitment from each team member that they:

  • have the ability to perform the task;
  • understand the project’s overall objective;
  • can complete the task in the allotted timeframe;
  • are aware of established performance standards.


Always operate under the principal that you can never be too clear. It is important to communicate exactly what needs to be done in an unambiguous effective manner. Indicate specifically what you want the associate to do and be sure to confirm that the associate is clear about the assignment. As the delegator, it is your responsibility to ensure your subordinates know:

  • Goals and Objectives of the project. Too many busy lawyers delegate under the command and control style of “Do this because I said so.” They believe it will take too long to explain the details. However, if everybody from administrative support to senior partner understands the overall objective (which typically can be explained in 3 sentences in less than 30 seconds) or how their segment of the project ties into the overall goal, they will be more invested in the project and better serve the needs of the organization. When everyone understands why they are doing something they will be better equipped to decide how to do it and the odds of success will soar.
  • Operating Procedures. Let people know how information will be shared (e-mail, voicemail, meetings, etc.) who else is working on the project and any other peculiarities specific to this deal/case/project.
  • SPECIFIC Deadlines. “ASAP” is meaningless. So is “In a few days.” Try, “I need it in an hour” or “I need it Wednesday afternoon.” Leave no room for ambiguity. Setting specific deadlines and allowing your team to manage their own workload will ameliorate your constant need to hover and inquire “is it done yet?” to the relief of both you and our team members.
  • Expected performance standards. Even if you believe people should know what is expected of them—take the 10 seconds required to state the obvious. Remember, you can never be too clear.
  • How they are doing along the way. Provide on-going feedback to allow for corrections to be made as the project progresses. Delegating a project does not mean you can remove yourself. You need to remain accessible for questions and course corrections.

After you have explained the details, you may want to clarify understanding by asking, “Will you walk me through how you will proceed so I know that I have explained the assignment properly.”

Avoid barking out orders while rushed. You need to provide associates with an opportunity to absorb the information and ask questions. Also, avoid thinking out loud when giving instructions. It causes confusion. Finally, try not to over explain or talk down to people. It will lead them to believe that you think they are too dumb to get it right the first time; remember, people rise or fall to the level of expectation.


Once you know who is on the team and have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses, you will want to decide which of the six levels of delegation is appropriate for their skill level and your comfort level. You are ultimately accountable and your professional reputation may be at risk, so it is important to be clear about the delegation level at which your subordinate is expected to operate. 

Delegation Levels

  1. Research and Report: subordinate is asked to research specific information and report back on findings;
  2. Recommend Action: subordinate is asked to research specific information, formulate multiple suggestions as to how to proceed, and come back to discuss;
  3. Take Action--When I say GO: subordinate is expected to complete the assignment with minimal supervision, but must check in with you before acting;
  4. Take Action—Unless I say NO; subordinate is expected to take action unless you step in and say not to;
  5. Take Action and Let me know what you did: subordinate takes ownership of projects and is expected to keep you in the information loop;
  6. Take Action and I don’t want to hear about it again! subordinate operates independently.

As you work more and more with people and trust develops, you will get more comfortable delegating at higher levels. Treat delegating as a chance to build rapport. Chat with subordinates about what needs to get done, how they intend to do it and why it is important. Investing 10 minutes in the process takes extra effort up front, but there is sure to be a payoff.


People make mistakes and misunderstandings occur every day in practice. There is always a chance that you provided vague instructions, offered unclear explanations or provided ambiguous answers to important question. It is also possible that the junior associate didn’t listen carefully or simply pretended to understand the assignment. Rather than use such sporadic disasters to justify micromanaging your staff, accept that such things are going to happen from time to time, learn from them and move on.

When an error does occur avoid the visceral response of immediately assigning blame. Focus on developing solutions to get the job done first. There will be time to assign blame later if necessary.

Consider whether there is time to allow the associate to fix the problem directly. If it is possible to seize such a ‘teachable moment’ use the IDIOT Problem Solving Model to help the associate maintain a forward-looking view and offer solutions as to how the situation can be fixed.


Identify the problem. 

      Explain to the associate what specific actions lead to the error. “You screwed up,” is not       useful. Try instead, “You researched issue X when I asked you to focus on issue Y.”

Delve into the issues.

      It is important to calmly ask questions to uncover why the associate did what he       did. Maybe he was just careless, but maybe there is some other reason which would be       helpful to know.

Investigate possible solutions.

      Give the associate the opportunity to figure out alternative ways to correct the problem.

Opt for the Best Alternative 

      Guide the associate to select the best approach to correct the mistake.

Take Action 

      Determine who will complete the necessary tasks to implement the revised action plan.

In the real world, with client demands and tight deadlines, it isn’t always possible to capitalize on those teachable moments. In those instances, you may want to jump in and fix the situation yourself. However, a few days later (when you are less stressed and less angry) bring the associate in to debrief. Walk through the IDIOT Problem Solving Model process. Your goal is to avoid a similar situation in the future. Whether you address the problem at the moment or a few days later, try to connect past behaviors with forward looking remedies of how the person can perform better.

How you implement the IDIOT Problem Solving Model is important. Negative reactions to criticism usually have less to do with what you say than the manner and attitude you display as you say it. Your communication style should be UNIFORM:

      Unemotional, calm demeanor

      Neutral body language


      Focused on observerable actions/not attitudes



      Maintain control

Delegating is not just a way to reduce your workload and complete projects. It is a way to develop employees and strengthen the workforce. Once you learn to mobilize forces around you, you will maximize your leverage, free yourself up to perform tasks of greater value to your organization and maybe even find a little spare time to enjoy your life.

Reprinted with Permission from Brady & Associates Career Planners, LLC.

About The Author

Kathleen Brady has 20 years of experience delivering career development seminars and counseling attorneys on professional development issues and job search strategies. She is a recognized expert on topics including career planning for law students and experienced attorneys, networking strategies, interviewing techniques and recovering from a layoff as well as business management skills such as delegating, delivering feedback and effective mentoring. Brady has comprehensive industry knowledge. She started her career in the Placement Office at Columbia Law School and went on to serve as Assistant Dean of Career Services at Fordham University School of Law, National Director of Staff Recruitment and Development at Jackson Lewis and Manager of Associate Professional Development at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, LLP. She is also a past president of the National Association for Law Placement and a founding member of the NALP Foundation for Research and Education. Brady is the author of two books, Navigating Detours on the Road to Success: A Lawyer's Guide to Career Management (Inkwater Press, 2005) and Jobs for Lawyers, Effective Techniques for Getting Hired in Today's Legal Marketplace (Impact Publications, 1996).

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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