Key tools for effective delegation

team meeting

Michael manages a property law team.  He has 5 lawyers in his team with various different skill levels.  When a new matter arrives, he shoots off several emails to each team member allocating tasks, then waits.  And waits.  Michael can’t understand why he is not hearing back from his team quickly.  Michael becomes frustrated by this process.  He starts wondering what the point of delegating work is if his team doesn’t come back to him.  Lets have a look at Michael’s emails:

Hi Josie

Could you please look into how a body corporate structure could assist this client.



Hmm.  A key point is missing here.  Aside from the lack of context about how this task fits into the broader case plan for the client – there is no timeframe.  No induction whatsoever as to when Michael wants to hear back from Josie.  It’s also highly likely that if Michael operates all files in his manner – Josie has 20 or 30 other tasks that she is trying to manage and look into without any specificity.  Michael becomes frustrated because he is no hearing from anyone.  Josie is overwhelmed as there is no specific direction about the task and no timeframe.

Before we get into some tips for effective delegation let’s look at the benefits and why it is as managers that we sometimes avoid delegation.

There are three key benefits to both the organisation as a whole and the individual team members when delegation occurs and is done well.

From a team perspective effective delegation provides an opportunity for all members of the team to contribute and learn.  Junior team members learn through exposure to broader work, they learn to do the tasks that their superiors do regularly but they will only learn when given the opportunity to participate.  Further those team members who have the skills to manage certain tasks should be doing those tasks.  If the senior solicitor is typing their own complex correspondence where that firm provides a dedicated legal secretary to assist, it is the legal secretary who is best placed to undertake that work.  Each member of the team has a role to play.

Delegating effectively throughout the team provides opportunities for taking initiative, for problem solving in a group setting, for allowing team members to work on their skill sets and importantly in providing a learning environment for those junior members of the team.

From an organisational perspective, effective delegation allows you to properly service your client’s needs potentially in a more cost-effective manner.  By delegating, work can pass through your internal systems more efficiently, rather than waiting for the team leader or partner to get to it.  The role of the senior team member becomes that of review allowing work to get out to the client quickly.  Having junior team members undertake the work will also provide a more cost-effective solution for your clients.

For the team leader, you are likely to have a number of responsibilities and tasks which go with your role.  You will need to have a method for effective delegation to allow tasks to be done by others, firstly to allow you to meet those responsibilities and secondly to allow you to get on and finalise other tasks.   Think back to the senior lawyer typing his own correspondence when he has a capable legal secretary – this is time wasted when dictation is a far more effective use of time, allowing the senior lawyer to focus on other tasks while that work is being completed.  Delegation also helps to reduce the overwhelm often experienced in senior roles.

Two key excuses come up time and time again when avoiding delegation. 

Leaders often say that the time spent delegating the task and then having another complete the work isn’t worth the effort in the short term.  It is likely that it will take the leader less time to do the task but in the long run, the effort spent in delegating and training others will save countless hours in the long run.

A second excuse arises with the leader is concerned that the job will not be completed as thoroughly as if the leader had undertaken the task themselves.  Those in leadership roles, will have over time acquired the skills to work efficiently.  They know what they are doing and can usually get through tasks in a small portion of time compared to a junior professional.  As we have seen above however, the process of delegation is in part a teaching exercise and junior professionals must be given the opportunity to learn.

Returning now to Michael and his property law team.  What are some key steps that Michael should take to ensure that the delegation of tasks is effective?

Consideration should be given to what tasks are to be delegated and to whom the task should be delegated.  A leader should consider the skill set of the person who is receiving the task, should the work go to a senior member of the team, or is there an opportunity for a junior member of the team to learn.

The critical part of delegation lies with the instructions.  Be specific.  Michael’s email above is too vague.  Josie is likely to have a number of tasks like this already sitting in her emails.  Key parts which should form part of your instructions are:

  • The context in which the task is required;
  • The specific task to be undertaken;
  • The timeframe for completion of the task.

Being specific allows Michael to get on with other work knowing that the task is clear.  It also allows Michael to be less worried about when he might hear back from team members.  Timeframes are clear.  Importantly it helps Josie manage her workflow and any potential overwhelm.

Allow the team member to get on with the work and allow time for questions.  It is far more efficient if the team member feels they can clarify the instructions and ask questions than the team member making assumptions about what is required and heading off down the wrong track.  Questions are good.  Questions help clarify and allow a broader discussion.  Questions might help to frame the issue in a different way.

Delegation is something that leaders struggle with regularly.  Following this framework will allow you to ensure that work is flowing to the correct team member and everyone, including you, is clear on what will be done and by when.

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