As legal departments bring more work in house to reduce costs, knowing how to leverage key resources to help manage growing workloads is critical for corporate counsel. Lawyers must know how to delegate tasks to legal staff more judiciously than ever before. Following are some suggestions for developing these crucial skills:
Taking a broader view. A key part of delegating is explaining to staff how their roles in assigned activities fit into the organization’s broader objectives. Many in-house counsel, however, came from law firms whose increased specialization has prompted lawyers to narrow their attention to offering advice on specific transactions at the expense of their traditional roles as counselors to clients on broad business issues as well. For some entering corporate work, this mindset has a way of persisting. While it is true that some attorneys have spent their entire careers in a corporate setting and many with law firm backgrounds undoubtedly acclimate to new dynamics when making the transition, most corporate counsel could still benefit from developing a more thorough understanding of a company’s business objectives. Adopting a more overarching view will not only help counsel better serve senior management, but it will also benefit staff to whom they delegate legal work.
Creating effective teams. Many of the people counsel assign to various tasks will not be working alone, of course. Supervising lawyers must also become astute in helping staff collaborate by designing well-thought-out case and project teams. One way to create an effective team is to select individuals with complementary skill sets and consider augmenting teams with project attorneys and paralegals to help manage large workloads and introduce specialized expertise when it is not resident in-house. When leading any team, it’s key to clarify roles, such as who will draft corporate resolutions, prepare meeting minutes or file documentation.
Becoming more project-minded. Corporate legal work today involves complex activities requiring the talents of many different individuals, including those from other departments. Success demands savvy delegation, staffing and project management skills. Counsel should try to think of their roles not only as a dispenser of advice but also a manager of a process – for both their staff and other involved company managers. It is wise to become more project-minded and recognize the responsibility for following up while remaining involved in each effort as required to meet deadlines and strategize new approaches when a team encounters barriers. This is not to advocate micro-management but to point out that greater attention may need to be paid to offering ongoing guidance and promoting collaboration among professionals of various backgrounds.
Utilizing all resources. When considering which staff members might best handle a particular project, counsel have a much broader range of professionals today from which to choose. Virtually all departments are now taking fuller advantage of the talents of legal assistants, but these professionals can be trained to handle ever-more-sophisticated tasks, many of which were previously handled by associates. Remember, however, that while a growing number of legal functions can be delegated to paralegals and other non-attorney professionals, lawyers are still required to carefully supervise their work on many matters.
Enhancing communication skills. Most attorneys have spent a career honing their verbal and written communication skills, but that doesn’t mean they always display the highest degree of interpersonal skills. It is critical to know how to explain tasks to others and motivate them to do their best in accomplishing them. It is key to clearly define expectations whenever delegating a task, and to use persuasive and diplomatic skills to explain the underlying reasons for a project’s importance and why an individual is uniquely suited to contribute to an initiative. This will inspire people to become more enthusiastic about their work and contribute more fully.
Knowing when not to delegate. While the goal is to maximize the use of staff, there are situations in which counsel will need to limit delegation. Certain internal clients or external parties with whom lawyers have developed a close, long-term relationship, for example, may require their continued personal involvement, even on small matters. Although the most effective corporate managers make an attempt to avoid level-consciousness, counsel must take into consideration the personalities and preferences of their clients and the nature of these relationships.
Developing strong delegation skills is not typically part of a legal education, nor are these competencies usually gleaned from the law firm experience in which many in-house counsel began their careers. Yet the ability to delegate effectively is pivotal in today’s corporate legal environment, and it offers distinct advantages for both managing counsel and the people they lead. By communicating a more holistic view of company goals and enhancing project- and team-management abilities, counsel can help their departments meet the complex challenges they face today.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.