A former colleague I met recently at the Signet Library was telling me about an associate he trained under, who every few weeks would go through all 100 or so of this trainee’s files for a housebuilder and send an email on each one saying simply, “Any update?”
It should be fairly clear to all of us that that is not an effective way to keep on top of those files. The associate obviously did not have much of a handle on what was going on with the transactions, and realistically could not have expected to get one from this scattergun approach.
Delegation is a great way of freeing up your own time to focus on more complicated tasks, as well as giving experience and learning opportunities to more junior colleagues, but it needs to be done properly. There are plenty of ways it can go wrong, be that through misunderstood instructions or both parties simply losing track of the task in question, but most can be avoided. Key to this are good supervision and making sure both parties are on the same page about what is required.
Whether you are the delegatee or the delegator, here are a few suggestions for how to make delegation work effectively for everyone.
1. Get clear instructions
We would normally associate this more with client interactions, but getting clear instructions from colleagues is just as important. Make sure you understand what it is you are actually meant to be doing and how quickly it needs done. If you are unsure about any of it, it is always better to take time at the outset to ask for clarification, rather than to go off and waste time doing the wrong thing.
Timing is important too. You might not be told it, but the task could well be time critical and your colleague may have simply assumed you understood to do it straightaway. Issuing a notice or lodging court papers even a day late could result in a break option being missed in a lease or a time bar passing; and the costs of either of those could be huge. So find out at the outset how urgent it is.
2. Keep the fee earner updated
It can be tempting to think that no news is good news and if no one has asked you what is happening with a task, nobody needs to know. On the contrary, what you will almost certainly find is that the person who passed you the task really does want an update but is just too busy to ask, or even has forgotten who picked the task up.
Taking a proactive approach and dropping the responsible fee earner a quick line to let them know what is going on and when you expect to be finished will show that things are in hand and put their mind at rest. It is also an opportunity to flag up to them that the task is still underway, and to prompt them to tell you if any circumstances have changed or urgency has arisen.
3. Speak up if something goes wrong
What happens if something happens and you miss a deadline or send confidential papers to the wrong party? It can be tempting to bury your head in the sand or try to wish it away, but we all know that those strategies never work. Mistakes which get buried will only get bigger, and although it can be daunting, the truth is that you are much better speaking up quickly so that the situation can be fixed than waiting and hoping nobody will notice.
I once had to show up at senior counsel’s house on a Saturday morning with three big boxes of papers in a taxi, because a trainee confided in me that he had forgotten to send them and was too afraid to tell his manager. If you realise something has gone wrong and it starts ballooning in your mind, think about whether there is someone else you can approach in the team who can help. Most things can actually be fixed, provided you bite the bullet and ask.
4. Keep a list of tasks
One of the things I was told most often when I started as a trainee was to keep a notepad and pen on my person at all times, because you simply never know when you will get asked to do something and need to write it down. The Notes app on your phone probably works well for impromptu things nowadays too, but the point is to get the instructions down in writing to avoid you forgetting about them later on, so a single physical notebook where everything is kept is a good way of doing that.
Bear in mind that the person asking may well think that once the instructions have been given they can score it off their list and not worry about it any more, without realising either that you have not understood what they wanted or that you never wrote it down and have already forgotten about it, so don’t rely on them chasing you up later.
1. Give clear instructions
Remember that just because you understand what it is you are asking, does not mean that everyone else will too. If you have asked a trainee to register the disposition of a property, do they know that there is a standard security for registration too, and that because the purchaser is a company the security also needs to be registered at Companies House? (And while we’re at it, do they know that the disposition has sat on your desk for two weeks and the protected period under the advance notice is running out?)
It might seem a hassle to have to explain procedures and timescales when you just want the task out of sight and out of mind, but failure to specify what it is you need done will probably result in it not being done properly and a situation which you will then need to unpick. Conversely, explaining to the person what exactly it is you need is an investment for the next time you ask so you do not need to explain it again.
2. Keep track of what you have delegated
It can be tempting to score something off a list and forget about it once it has been handed to someone else, but we all have a responsibility to keep on top of the files we are working on and check for progress. If a client complains that they have been kept waiting or even that the work they instructed has become time barred, blaming the colleague the task had been delegated to will be a poor defence.
As we saw above, sending 100 “Any update?” emails on a Wednesday night is not an effective way of keeping on top of things. When you delegate a task from one of your files, make a note in your own note of work, of who is meant to be doing it and when you asked them. That will make it easy to keep track of how long it is taking and who you need to get in touch with to follow up.
3. Be available for questions
Giving clear instructions at the outset is crucial, but so is being available for questions as the task progresses. It might seem obvious that the colleague should come to you if they have questions or are having difficulty with what has been asked of them, but try to keep in mind the experience gap between you. It costs nothing to make it clear that you will be receptive to questions if they need to ask them, and may avoid them being put off doing so.
Of course a lot of tasks you would give to a more junior colleague might involve processes or firms you will not have used yourself recently, so it might be that you are not actually the person best placed for questions. If you do get asked about something with which you are not familiar, try to think about who else in the team or firm would be likely to know. Even if you cannot answer the question yourself, you will probably have a better idea of who can than someone who has only recently joined.
4. Make delegation a learning opportunity
We have all been trainees (or even apprentices), and even after qualifying will have continued to benefit from training and learning opportunities from colleagues which enabled us to develop our skills and understanding of what we were doing. The better that colleagues you delegate to understand how the tasks they are assigned fit into a case or transaction as a whole, the more effectively they can deliver what is needed of them and continue to contribute to the project as it goes along.
A simple way of doing that is to explain the reason behind any deadlines that apply to the task you are assigning, but you can go further by talking about what will be done with the work your colleague produces and how it might affect things further down the line. While it might feel like this takes up time unnecessarily, remember that it is an investment. It will encourage them to feel involved in the process and will make them more rounded and useful members of the team.
It is a great feeling to know that a task from your to-do list has been handed over to someone you are confident will do it both well and on time, but these relationships do not just appear overnight. Keeping the above in mind, whether you are the one receiving work or the one giving it out, should help make the delegation process work better for everyone.
Kenneth Law is a solicitor and risk manager at Lockton
In this issue
- Good legal software suppliers listen to you
- The trends that will shape law firms in 2022
- Technology won't solve everything...
- Key trends in legal tech adoption for UK law firms
- The top 4 benefits of moving to a cloud solution
- Why cyber risk management is not the same as IT support
- Business growth: finding the right package