Delegation and the in-house lawyer

Most lawyers pride themselves on taking responsibility, getting things done, and understanding that it is their job to ensure the project is finished.

They may see the role as an opportunity to demonstrate their technical knowledge, to solve complex problems and to show their commitment to the role.

These are all commendable qualities, but there is another side to them. There is often a feeling that you must do something yourself to ensure that it is done correctly, that no-one else can do it properly, or that it is quicker to do it yourself than to ask someone else to help. And if there is finally no option but to pass on the work, there is a risk that sometimes it is simply passed on too late or without proper guidance – in other words abrogated rather than delegated.

In-house lawyers will often also find themselves doing things which are not their job, either because they have good communication skills (so will find themselves writing reports, letters and presentations which ought to be done by business colleagues) or they will want to be helpful and to fill gaps on project teams which are really someone else’s responsibility. Of course, the in-house lawyer wants to be seen to be helpful and collaborative – but is that at the expense of more pressing issues?

Delegation – the rationale

Done well, delegation allows the job to be done quicker, faster and more effectively, and allows you to focus on the more difficult and complex tasks which are the best use of your time. It gives the person to whom you delegate the opportunity to learn the job under supervision, to develop their skills, and to become more useful to the organisation.

All well and good – but that brings us to the next hurdle to delegation – to whom can one delegate? Almost every in-house team is under constant pressure of cost and resource – and of course there are significant numbers of sole lawyers in-house with no other members of their team. More of that problem later – but first, what to delegate?

What to delegate?

In thinking about what to delegate, you will want to look first for work which is too junior for your role, or which is repetitive, or has qualities which can be standardised so that your delegate can learn from it and also take on a work-stream in future. You will also want to look for work which is really the job of another member of your team – perhaps you have been promoted and appointed a successor, but kept part of your old workload? Think about what work you are doing just because there is nobody else – if you are General Counsel but are doing junior level work as a norm, you are doing no-one any favours. If you have taken on non-legal work, is it so important that you are the right person to do it? If not, the organisation is losing access to the skills for which it appointed you, and you are probably putting yourself under stress, and disguising the problem.

Who to delegate to?

This may seem to be a simple question. It is not. For some of the work you may have more junior members of the team who are the obvious choice – and indeed whose job it may be in the first place. They may not have capacity, but that is then for you to manage their workload and resourcing accordingly.

Obviously, you will not solve the problem by delegating to the wrong person. A trainee cannot be expected to give complex advice or to service the needs of the Board without help. The delegate must have the intellect, skills and qualifications to carry out the work – and of course they will need to feel that the delegated work is their job, and that they are supported in carrying it out. There will also be parts of most in-house lawyer’s job that are better done by someone else – whether that is by a more junior lawyer, a paralegal or a member of your administrative team. The work might even be more effectively done outside the legal team altogether.

Just because you do not have a large (or even a small) team does not mean there is no-one to whom you can delegate. You might like to think about other options for delegating – if you cannot delegate down, think about delegating sideways, out, differently - or even upwards.

  • Delegating sideways. If the job is something which ought not to be done by you or a member of your team in the first place, is it better handled by another colleague, or another team, within your organisation? Can it be divided up so that some part of it can be done by others? Much of what an in-house legal team does is often not purely legal – do not be afraid to delegate sideways if it allows you to use your time more effectively. Do you need to draft a letter for your HR or commercial colleagues, or simply to offer pointers to the structure and content to be used?
  • Delegating out. Most in-house teams will not do all the legal work themselves – typically they will use external lawyers or alternative legal providers. Can all or part of the tasks be done by them? Are there other providers you use who can carry out the task, even if a cost must be negotiated? You may even find it is cheaper to outsource part of the work, freeing your team to focus on more critical matters.
  • Delegating differently. Even if the job has typically been done by the in-house lawyers, consider whether that is the right or even the best route? Can it be split into constituent parts and allocated more effectively? Can the organisation do some of the work itself, perhaps with assistance and training, and standard forms? Is work being done because the core issues haven’t been addressed in the organisation?
  • Delegating up. Is the issue something which is actually a matter of policy or relationship which needs to be dealt with at a higher level, even by the CEO or Board? There is a significant cost to struggling with an operational or practical matter which isn’t actually something the in-house team can resolve. Do ask yourself whether you are dealing with the symptom rather than the real issue.

How to delegate

While there isn’t a single, fail-safe, formula for successful delegation, there are some clear pointers which can dramatically improve the chance of success:

  • Check resourcing. The person to whom you are delegating must have the right resources to do the job – the time, access to the necessary materials and people, and the right training. Make sure you have set up the job to succeed.
  • Define the task. Be very clear what you expect to be done – sufficiently precisely for the person to whom you are delegating to understand what exactly is expected, with enough precision, and with the opportunity for them to ask questions and clarify what is required. Don’t assume that they will automatically know what you know. If there are elements which might confuse, or be interpreted differently, make sure to identify them and tell the delegate what applies and what doesn’t.
  • Set a sensible deadline. As part of that task, tell your delegate how long you think the task – and its constituent parts – should take, and be clear when you expect the work to be returned. Check with them that they agree this is possible, and that there aren’t other issues you haven’t considered, such as other work provided by someone else, holidays, medical appointments and so on. Schedule your own next steps accordingly and make sure the person knows that you are doing so, so that they need to get their work to you by the agreed time so you can review it. Be clear and honest on the priority of the work – if it’s urgent and important, say so, but don’t set impossible timescales.
  • Identify checkpoints in the work. Ensure that the person understands that if a particular part of the work is taking longer than expected or becomes impossible, they tell you about it at the time, and don’t wait until the whole project is late. If the project is expected to take some time or to have intermediate stages, schedule review meetings.
  • Ensure that what you want is recorded in writing. You may like to prepare written instructions, or ask your delegate to take a note of the conversation. to make sure you have the same understanding of what is required.
  • Review the work-product, giving clear feedback on any changes you need. Explain what the delegate needs to do differently next time and how to improve.

Learning from delegation

Both you and your delegate should learn from the delegation process:

  • Training. If you are delegating to someone in your team, and possibly elsewhere in your organisation, it is an opportunity for them to be trained and developed, to learn from the delegation, and to be more useful to the organisation. At the same time, that training will also mean you are more effective and able to focus on more important work. Inevitably, this will take time but it will be worth the effort of accepting that commitment.
  • Supervision. While it’s important to provide proper supervision and to follow the guidance on how to delegate (above) you must yourself learn to supervise whilst allowing the delegate to learn to do the work, to understand the process to be followed, and the require output.
  • Feedback. For both you and your delegate to gain the most benefit from the task, do ensure they have proper feedback, given positively and in a way which will mean they are keen to assist you next time. You want to understand how they felt the task went, you want them to know how to improve next time, and that their help is appreciated. You may find it helpful to comment on the work which has been delivered, rather than to amend with detailed changes, so that the delegate can themselves learn how to improve the work.
  • Knowing when to ask. Not infrequently, one will hear senior in-house lawyers complain that they work much harder than their teams, and that they are too busy to work out how to be less busy. Equally frequently, their teams are more than willing to help, but will feel uncomfortable in offering to help, or will not know how best to do so. Understand that your role is not to do everything yourself, but to use the resources at your disposal.

Some closing thoughts

Delegation is one of the hardest things for an in-house lawyer to do. Our professional training, development and experience build a focus on personal knowledge, responsibility and delivery. In most cases, we are unlikely to have had training on delegation, and in many organisations the size of the legal team is restricted, and structured so that colleagues are fully engaged at all times.

With thought and care, though, there is significant mutual benefit in developing delegation. For the in-house team, work can be cascaded to those best placed to do it, freeing up more senior staff to deal with the complex work which demands their skills. Like most skills, though, there are tools and techniques such as those described in this article, and investing in some training in them both for the senior person and the delegate is a worthwhile investment. For the in-house team, the team strength is increased as more junior staff are given new and enhanced skills, as well as a better understanding of the legal department and its workload.

It can become an integral part of the department’s personal development programme, and used as a coaching opportunity which allows staff to develop their legal knowledge, as well as a number of practical skills including prioritisation and presentation.

Further reading:

Harvard Business Review

How Office Control Freaks Can Learn to Let Go Elizabeth Grace Saunders

You’re Delegating. It’s not working. Why? Sabina Nawaz

Being the Boss Linda Hill HBR Publishing 2019