If you’re a new associate at a law firm, more than likely you’ll also have staff. A paralegal or a legal assistant. There might be runners and clerks. As a lawyer, you’re above them in the hierarchy of things, even if they’ve been there for five years and you’re wet behind the ears.
If you’re a K-JD (kindergarden->law school) who went straight through school, this could very well be the first time you have people working for you. Suddenly, you’re not only a lawyer, you’re a manager as well. But law school was about teaching you to think like a lawyer, not think like a manager. It’s one of the (many) faults with the current legal education model.
For new associates, a variety of questions arise when it comes to staff:
- How to treat them?
- How to communicate with them?
- How to address them?
- How (and what) tasks to delegate to them?
The last one is of the utmost importance. Proper delegation is an essential skill, and often one that is underdeveloped in recent graduates. Law school is largely an “all-in” on yourself scenario. You can’t delegate studying the Rule Against Perpetuities to someone else. So recent graduates have a “do it all myself” mindset. Which is necessary in law school, but foolish if you’re in a fully staffed law firm.
You have a staff, utilize them. Your time is more valuable than theirs to the firm. Time that you spend on administrative or clerical tasks is time you’re not working (and billing) on client matters. Staff is there to help you make the most of your time. Of course, the law firm has to have a good staff, but that’s out of your control for the moment.
When dealing with staff keep in mind that proper delegation can be tricky. People often have different ideas as to what delegation means. If your firm has some guidelines, get ahold of them. If you’re in a large enough firm, there should hopefully be some guidance available to you. But in most small and mid-size firms, lawyers just wing it. Which means they probably manage and delegate poorly.
One of the problems with lawyers is that most of us are Grade A egomaniacs who think they can do everything better than anyone else. Again, law school. But if you remember being back in law school, there was likely another building on campus where slightly older graduates students went to class. This was the business school. They study management the same way you studied torts. So instead of trying to make up some wacky, lawyer-specific management/delegation system, let’s just take a page out of business management?
How To Delegate And Manage Staff For New Lawyers? Use SMART Delegation
An easy shorthand for making sure that staff is on the same page as you when it comes to delegated tasks is to use SMART delegation.
To ensure that any delegation that takes place meats the SMART goal above, follow these steps:
- Define the task. The more specific the better. Don’t attempt to delegate some open-ended assignment and then get upset with what you get back.
- Asses ability. Who on your staff is capable of completing the task? Certain tasks are likely better suited to paralegals, while others are better suited to assistants. You need to take the time to learn who can do what. Once you’ve done that, you can select the right individual for the job.
- Explain the reasons behind the task and why they were chosen. This only applies if it’s a new, or novel task. If you’re assigning a routine task (“Please draft initial interrogatories off our template”), then it’s not required.
- State required results. Again, think specificity NOT “Tell me about the local rules in Court X.” Instead: “Please draft a memo on the local rules in Court X regarding discovery deadlines and how they apply to case Y.”
- Agreed upon deadline. Don’t just assign a task and not give a deadline. Otherwise, the person you’re delegating the task to has no clue how urgent it is.
- Support and communicate through the process if they need further information or assistance. Sometimes there are speed bumps in the process. This is to be expected, especially if it’s a novel task. You need to be available to give assistance if they stumble.
- Provide feedback on results. If the work product that is returned to you is sub-par, they need to know. On the flipside, if the work product is exactly what you needed and delivered on time, they deserve positive feedback as well. Nothing over the top, but a quick email that says something along the lines of: “Thanks for the getting this done on time, it looks great,” is the type of thing that helps grease the wheels when you’re in an office.
If you can manage the above, it will take you far when it comes to working your staff.