As some of you may have read in my previous posts, my second paralegal job included the title of "Office Manager." I was so young when I received that title. I had only worked for one other attorney since graduating from paralegal school. I had a little less than eight years of experience as a paralegal and no experience as an office manager. Looking back over those 14 years with my second law firm, I am eternally grateful to the attorney, our associate attorneys, and every single employee that worked for the firm during my tenure there. I gained a wealth of knowledge during my 14 years at the law firm that couldn’t have been taught in a classroom or learned from a book. I made a ton of mistakes along the way but the lessons I learned made me a better paralegal.
One of the key skills I learned was how to delegate work. My attorney and I are a lot alike. We’re both over-achievers with Type-A personalities and we’re only children. We’re accustomed to doing everything ourselves and we think that no one can get it done quicker or better (yes, this is a horrible attitude that Type-A people tend to have and, thank goodness, I let that belief go years ago). My attorney had much more experience than me and had already learned the art of delegating work even though he kept a close eye on every step. He actually had a list he updated on his computer several times a day and carried it around with him from desk to desk to check the status of a case. Everyone, including me, absolutely hated that list but I learned to love it once I became office manager.
“It’s easier to teach someone to dig a ditch than to dig it yourself.”
I absolutely hated that statement. I must have heard it at least 100 times before I finally learned to delegate. He was right, even though I still hate to admit it (only child thing again). Trying to do it all meant that I was not doing anything perfectly and doing everything halfway. There are simply not enough hours in a day to do everything in a law firm. This is why you hire competent employees. Learning to delegate when you’re accustomed to being in control is difficult. My attorney was patient. He gave me guidance and then watched me fall flat on my face so I would learn a lesson. Once I began delegating, my work life and personal life improved drastically as I was working 45 to 50 hours a week instead of going in at 4 a.m. and working up to 70 hours a week.
It took some time and trial and error but I finally learned how to supervise employees rather than do the work for them. If you’re struggling with delegating work, you might find some of the lessons my attorney taught me helpful.
Begin with something small.
If you’re just learning how to delegate and you’re a control freak like me, delegating a small task is a good place to start. Time-sensitive and critical tasks are difficult to delegate so leave those for when you’ve mastered the art a bit more.
Never delegate something you would not do yourself.
This is a lesson I had already learned and it served me well as an office manager. I knew how to do each job within the law firm and could step in at any time if something went wrong. I wasn’t beneath making copies, stuffing envelopes, filing, or digging through boxes in storage. How could I expect any of the employees I managed to respect me if I was “too good” to do the grunt work? I earned their respect and that was a major factor in being able to delegate work successfully.
Pick the right people for the right job. Knowing your team is essential if you’re going to delegate work successfully. Take time to learn each personalities, strengths, and weaknesses and delegate work that is best suited for specific talents.
This is where the list came into play. My attorney didn’t micro-manage us when he assigned us a file or a task. He simply checked in with us at least once a day to answer questions and make sure we were on the right track. His list was prioritized so while you may have had 10 items delegated to you, he would only ask about one or two tasks. This assisted employees in creating their own priority list based on the attorney. I held weekly office meetings rather than traveling around to each person’s desk every day. Together we prioritized the tasks and cases assigned to each person, gave updates, and requested assistance when necessary.
Communication is essential.
You must clearly communicate to your employees when you delegate work. Don’t just give them a task without some guidance as to how you expect the task to be completed without the deadline for completing the task. I found that it was helpful to provide a memo with each file I assigned providing the person with an overview of what I expected and a list of the deadlines for completing each task.
Say thank you.
This is something that my attorney did on a daily basis. It was a little surprising at first because I had never worked with an attorney who would say “thank you” each time you completed a task. From the smallest to the largest task, he always said thank you and he sincerely meant it. He appreciated his employees’ efforts and was quick to tell them he did. He was demanding and could be difficult but we always knew that we were highly valued as his employees. Do the same when you’re delegating work to your team. A simply heart-felt “thank you” means more than you can imagine.
The art of delegating work is something that everyone learns through trial and error. You won’t be perfect at first. The trick is in letting go of the control and trusting your team to get the job done with minimal supervision on your part. It’s truly easier to teach someone to dig a ditch one time than to dig ditches by yourself. Just remember that you’re never above getting in that ditch and shoveling as fast as you can when necessary.
Tonya Pierce is a paralegal with over 24 years experience in several areas of the legal field (17 years as a bankruptcy paralegal and trustee paralegal).