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  • Gary Richards

If lawyers assign legal work and the results don’t meet their expectations, they often blame the people they assigned it to. But, says Gary Richards, the issue often lies with how the work was assigned: the initial conversation and the process following it

Do you ever have problems getting work done right the first time, when you assign it to others? If so, don’t jump to the conclusion that the person you assigned it to is incompetent, or that you don’t have enough staff – and don’t immediately punish the person by excluding them from future assignments. Instead, examine the way in which you assigned the work. I often find that the problem is more down to how the work was assigned – especially the initial assignment conversation – than to the incompetence or poor attitude of the one doing the work.

In this article, I outline how to have an effective initial assignment conversation, how to keep the assignment on track, and how to ensure the work gets done right the first time, on time, and within budget.

How to assign any work

There are two pieces of advice I would give for assigning any piece of work to anyone.

First, take time up front when making the assignment. As they say, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. You may feel that you don’t have time to invest up front, but that is better than spending time handling surprises or mistakes at the last minute.

Second, assign work by phone or face to face if at all possible, rather than by email. Real-time interaction improves results. Sending an email to someone is not the same as receiving an informed commitment from them.

How to assign work to improve results

If you are assigning work either to someone who has a track record of ‘not getting it’, or the task is complicated and/or it is the first such task for the person being assigned, the following tips will also help.

1. Establish a clear understanding of expected results

Establish a clear picture of the specific results expected, including in what format (bulleted list, memo, brief draft, Word document, table, Excel spreadsheet, list of issues with answers etc). Agree on the number of hours you and the doer think the task should require (if you don’t, the eager beaver might over-work it and the slacker might under-work it). Agree on any special steps or procedures to be used.

2. As much as possible, leave the method to the doer

Have the doer explain how they expect to proceed. If they ‘create’ the method / steps themselves, they will own them, and be more motivated than if they were working just to please your way.

Listen to how they would proceed, and either agree, or coach them if you prefer different steps or a different approach.

3. Set deadlines by collaboration

Without a deadline for completion, the task is not fully defined.

Say: ‘I’d like this completed by [date and time]. Will that work for you?’ Explain why you want it by then. Then discuss / negotiate if needed. Deadlines are more likely to be met when set by collaborating instead of by commanding.

You also need to agree on the other stages of the timeline: when you will review it and when it is to go to the client or court etc.

Acknowledge completion when they finish the work, and review it when you said you would.

4. Schedule progress checks

These should be scheduled at the same time as the timeframe agreed in step 3.

When you tell the doer you will be building progress checks into the schedule, explain the reasons for and benefits of the progress check: to be sure the doer has what they need, and to answer any questions they may have. The role of the progress checks is to reinforce, not enforce.

Scheduling a progress check in advance lets the doer know what to expect. Such advance notice avoids the surprise of a ‘drop-in’ follow-up, which can appear to indicate a lack of trust and/or be an attempt to ‘push’ the doer. A scheduled progress check also gives incentive to start work immediately in order to be ready with something to report, questions to ask etc. Without a scheduled progress check, work might begin too close to the deadline.

Have the doer, instead of you, initiate the progress check when it is due. That way, they ‘own’ the follow-up, and feel more trusted.

5. Invite the doer to negotiate their priorities with you

The doer may feel over-committed to other matters / lawyers. Respect their right to show you the impact on their other work commitments if they accept your assignment. Otherwise, they will feel stressed, and you won’t know what they may have to give up in order to do what you are asking.

6. Insist that they notify you immediately if your deadline becomes jeopardised

Most people are reluctant to ‘raise the flag’ when spotting a possible delay. Instead, they prefer to get it back on track themselves so as not to look like they ‘couldn’t handle it’.

Notifying you immediately instead allows you to help them work out the best recovery plan sooner, and maybe even command some resources not available to the doer.

7. Arrange authority

If you expect an associate or junior partner to request something from other senior partners or clients, inform those senior partners and clients in advance that the doer is representing you, explain why they are being asked, and encourage their cooperation.

This ‘credentialises’ the doer to others and removes roadblocks.

8. Remain available to help if needed

Each of the doer’s requests for help is a coachable moment: to fix their problem, point out what they can do on their own next time, all while assuring them that you care about their success and will pitch in etc. After all, you have as much interest in their successful work as they do.

Educate them as to where else, besides you, they can go for help within and outside the firm. They keep ownership of the solution, you gain time.

9. Teach: final review

You must review work to ensure quality and value, especially if the doer is a new associate or paralegal.

The final review is also an ideal time for timely coaching or correcting when changes are needed. This is your investment in the professional development of the doer.

Have the doer make the corrections – don’t do it yourself. That way they learn, and you save time.

How to guarantee that your assignments are understood

How can you ensure that the person listening fully understands your assignment? Simply asking the tempting questions below are no help at all, given their likely answers (in parentheses):

  • ‘Do you have any questions?’(Not really.)
  • ‘Is it clear what I need?’(Yes.)
  • ‘Do you understand exactly what I want and when?’ (Sure… I’ll get right on it ).

Most people are not comfortable admitting it when they are unclear or confused, especially to someone in authority like you. So they give you the answers needed to end the conversation, so they can spend time privately figuring it out for themselves.

1. Get them to recap

There is only one way to know for sure what the listener understands: ask them to repeat your instructions, so that you can compare what they say to what you intended. Such a request is rarely made because of fear that it will be taken as an insult or an accusation of inattention.

The skilful way to make such a request is to format the question as an ‘I’ message, not a ‘you’ message:

  • Faulty: ‘Could you repeat those instructions for me to see whether you got it correctly?’
  • Effective: ‘Could you repeat those instructions so that I can see if I said exactly what I meant?’

As you listen to your repeated instructions, compare what you are hearing to what you intended. If you hear an omission or misunderstanding, say: ‘No… what I meant to say was…’ and provide the correction. It doesn’t matter whether you said it correctly the first time or not. What matters is to correct the misunderstanding, not to assign blame.

2. Recap yourself

To end a matter team meeting, recap specifically the key work assignments agreed to during the meeting: who is to do what by when. That way, your next meeting will have a greater chance of dealing with accomplishments, instead of undone tasks.

3. Finish with the ‘how’ question

Finally, even when you are fully understood, consider asking ‘How will you accomplish this?’ Their answer will tell you a lot about their approach to your assignment. It may give you a chance to coach them to improve their approach. Or they may actually describe a totally innovative and effective way they have in mind that you would never have thought of! In any case, you can only benefit by probing their method with the ‘how’ question.

Could you be demotivating others?

A motivated person is more likely to perform well on your assignments. It is usually eye-opening to get feedback from those to whom you assign work about how they feel about it. If you’re feeling brave, ask people to whom you assign tasks this question: ‘Is there anything I do that frustrates your ability to perform as effectively as you would like?’

The answers could be a real mine of information about how to better assign work in future. Here are some real-life examples I’ve heard from paralegals and associates over the years.

  • ‘You give me the assignment, and then disappear so that no questions that arise can be answered.’
  • ‘No deadline is given as to when the work is to be finished. This usually results in your repeatedly checking up with “How are you coming on with X?” I work better with a deadline for completion, and fewer interruptions for status reports.’
  • ‘You set unrealistic expectations as to how much chargeable time the assignment should take, like “this should take only a couple of hours”, but it really takes 10 under the best of circumstances.’
  • ‘Too short a lead time was given from assignment date to due date, but only because it was “sat on” for several days, when it could have been handed off to me earlier.’

Conclusion

By putting some of these tips to work, your conversations assigning tasks to others can be radically improved, hugely impacting whether the work gets done right the first time, on time, and within budget. Your time will be freed and the stress of last minute rework will be avoided, and the motivation of the people you assign to will remain high. Good luck! 

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