If You Want to Be Successful, Don’t Do All the Work Yourself

By Teresa Zink

What is the one thing all successful women lawyers have to learn?  You can’t do everything yourself.

Speaking at HB Litigation Conferences’ February teleconference on Effective Negotiation Skills for Women Lawyers, Eileen Kavanagh of Litchfield Cavo, took a few minutes to discuss the importance of learning how to delegate.

“I don’t care how smart you are, how efficient, how good at your job; you can’t do it all by yourself,” Kavanagh said.  “There are only 24 hours in a day.  Something has to give.”

“That is one of the key things that successful partners, successful litigators, successful negotiators have learned.  They have learned how to delegate effectively.  They know that they can use the good work product that they are provided by others and fold it into their own portfolios, if you will, and go off and do what they are good at.”

Effective Delegation

The trick, she said is in learning how to delegate effectively.  That requires a certain amount of self-knowledge.  “If you are in fact a control freak, you really have to take a step back and understand that something does not have to be done by you in order to be done well,” she says.  “If you have a good administrative assistant who understands you and works well with you, you can rest assured that he or she is going to get all of the exhibits properly in order and together with the pleading papers and off to the clerk.  You can always review it the first several times you are filing things to make sure that he or she is doing it properly.  From there on in, that is something that should be off your list.”

According to Kavanagh, “when you are in a position to assign work to associates below you, whether or not you have achieved partner status or not, you should be giving research assignments and discreet tasks to other lawyers to enable them to provide you with their work product.  The trick here is to make sure that you are clear in your instructions and clear in your expectations.”  She advises writing it down

Learn To Demand The Best

Then, she adds, you need to demand the best of others.  According to Kavanagh, women have a tendency to think “if we don’t get a great work product or we don’t get a great work product within the deadline specified that somehow it is our fault.  We weren’t clear enough.  We weren’t helpful enough.  If the product we have received isn’t good enough we somehow feel bad about telling the other person that the product isn’t acceptable or it is not okay to hand it in late.”

“We simply have to be tougher about that,” she says.  “When you have given clear instructions, when questions have not been asked about it, and it appears as though the person to whom you delegated the responsibility knows exactly what is expected and the deadline for it, then you have to insist that you get an excellent work product within the timeframe that has been set forth.”

What you do next is equally important, she says. “Once you have gotten an excellent work product or a very good work product, be sure to be positive about it.  You can offer constructive criticism, with emphasis on ‘constructive,’ that will bind that person to you more closely because you are in fact helping them along.  You are helping them improve their work product and you are going to give them credit.”

Give Credit

This makes you look good not only to the person who did the work for you, “but also to the people who are above you and working with you on your level because it is a very positive, empowering, and admirable quality to spread around the credit.  You lose absolutely nothing.  And you gain so much by making sure that people understand that this section of the brief was researched by So-and-So and they did an excellent job.  This section of that pleading was written by someone else.  You worked together on it.  They have done a fabulous job.”

On the other side, if something has to be rewritten or you have to send the person back to do additional research, she says, “let that be between the two of you.  That doesn’t need to be broadcast to anybody else and that way you earn the respect and the loyalty of the person with whom you are working because they know that whatever problems they may have had are not going to be broadcast to the firm at large.”

In order to make it work, she says, “You have to have some faith in your ability to choose people well, to delegate effectively, and let those people run with it.”

Don’t Just Delegate at Work

Finally, she urges, don’t limit your delegating to the office.  “This is something you should think about throughout your whole life.  There is no need to try to do everything at home.  There is no need to try to do everything in your personal life.  That requires a little bit of confidence in the person to whom you are entrusting a particular task or chore, remembering always that just because it isn’t done exactly the way you would have done it, doesn’t mean it isn’t done well.”

Panelist Nancy Peterson of Quarles & Brady agreed.  “One of the things I have advocated to my colleagues here at Quarles & Brady is to really think about what tasks you are doing at home and with your family that you can be comfortable letting others do.”  Whether that means hiring someone to clean your house or figuring out other ways to find time, not only for more work but also to enjoy your children, family and personal life.  She told the story of a young attorney at Quarles & Brady who took her advice to heart and gave up making lunches for the family.  “She delegated that to her husband.  Within a week he had delegated that to the kids.  They were taking care of all of their lunches and loving it.  I liked that story and wanted to share it because it says that maybe you can free some time up and keep everybody in your family as happy as or happier than they were before.”

The Audio Package of the Effective Negotiation Skills for Women Lawyers Teleconference recorded February 12, 2009 is available for $150. The full transcript is $50. To order, contact Allison Emery at allison.emery@litigationconferences.com or 484-324-2755 x205.