More Than an Army of One
Why teamwork is your most
effective legal strategy.
By Kathleen Call
Sept/Oct ’02 Issue
Imagine Lorraine is a dedicated,
hard-working legal assistant who has been with her current firm for more
than nine years. She was recently named lead legal assistant on a new
case and was given the responsibility to coordinate the work of 11
people, including law clerks and other paralegals from both her firm and
the client’s legal department.
She has always been a first-rate
performer, working long hours and taking on additional projects whenever
asked. But lately Lorraine is finding that no matter how hard she tries
to manage each component of the case — even doing the work herself on
many occasions — she is increasingly falling behind in her work.
Despite her years of experience,
Lorraine has never learned to delegate tasks effectively to others.
She isn’t alone. Many senior-level
legal assistants are challenged by the demands of leading a work group
and learning how to make the best use of available human resources while
battling unruly caseloads and other legal projects.
Nevertheless, knowing how to delegate
and direct productive teams is essential for overcoming a potential
minefield and becoming victorious.
to ‘Let Go’
Tenured legal assistants often cling to the belief that doing
their best means remaining heavily involved in the details of every
task, as they did earlier in their careers. After all, giving undivided
attention to each project they are assigned is a formula for success
that has served them well.
However, this isn’t how effective
managers handle their jobs. Effective managers maximize the
contributions of their teams by judiciously delegating responsibilities
and monitoring progress toward key goals.
To put it another way: If you are not
delegating, you are not managing. Yes, you still need to bear your share
of the load and pitch in when required. However, your supervisory role
requires you to be less of an implementer and more of a leader.
Most Out of Delegating
Skillful delegating carries significant benefits for you and the people
you are leading. One obvious advantage is reducing the chance of burnout
that often accompanies increased workloads.
In addition, distributing the work
among capable colleagues allows you to maximize your own time and job
strengths. You can better focus on the needs of the group and attend to
issues that demand your personal attention. Delegating also allows you
time to take on new roles, with opportunities to grow professionally and
enhance your own productivity.
Effective delegating doesn’t come
without challenges. It puts your communication and people skills to the
test. Not only must you clearly lay out your expectations and explain
how a task should be tackled, but also your approach must be persuasive
and diplomatic. You need to be confident in your ability to lead and
then also trust that your team will make smart decisions.
Not to Delegate
As critical as it is to learn how to delegate, it’s just as
important to know when you should not delegate.
Responsibilities that you are
convinced only you can carry out properly are an obvious area where
delegating would be a poor option.
Another determining factor is the
amount of time available to complete or prepare for an assignment. If
the lead attorney on a case tells you there are last-minute
interrogatories that he or she will need for a pivotal deposition at 8
a.m. tomorrow, for example, your direct involvement will likely be
needed. If, on the other hand, you had previously trained an assistant
on a similar task, asking him or her to gather the necessary research
can free up your time to attend to other pressing responsibilities.
Another instance when delegating
isn’t the best choice might be in contacting a client with whom you have
built a longstanding relationship. For example, there are clients that
you should only call yourself — even on small matters. These could be
the clients you worked with on more than one issue or those who often
generate additional opportunities for representation whenever you talk
to them. Or they could be clients you know will have questions someone
else might not be able to answer.
While it’s important to allow staff members under your
supervision as much autonomy as possible, that doesn’t mean delegating
is a series of unrelated, assign-it-and-forget-it transfers of
The lead attorney usually assembles a
case team based on client needs, budget and available staff resources,
but it’s up to you to support the group and regularly assess its
progress. You will need to make sure each member has everything he or
she needs to be successful and recommend any increase — or decrease — in
the size of the team as the case develops.
Given the fluidity of these project
teams, your job requires a great deal of flexibility and an aptitude for
working with a broad spectrum of individuals. Sometimes freelance
paralegals and project attorneys will be part of your team. In other
situations, you might be asked to include first- or second-year
attorneys so you can collaborate with them on particular aspects of a
Shifting demands also can mean the
composition of your group could change over the course of a case. To
meet these challenges, you are going to need some well-developed people-
and project-management skills. Here are some tips for maximizing the
contributions of a team of legal professionals.
Paint the big picture. The success of
a team depends to a large degree on the understanding of every member as
to how he or she fits into the project. With each new case or project
team you are asked to lead, begin by providing the context for the work
you are assigning for the case. Then explain how individuals’
contributions will support these overall goals and how everyone can work
together to meet common objectives.
For example, with a document
production team preparing materials for trial, you might explain the
scope of the upcoming trial and how the materials staff members are
organizing will be used. Be sure to share this vision before a project
gets underway (or as soon as possible for team members joining a case
already in progress).
Spell out expectations. Carefully
explain — and document — desired outcomes and deliverables at various
stages of a project. Clarify roles and identify point persons for
specific issues or assignments, such as document coding, scanning and so
Set a good example. Attitude is
everything when it comes to leading a team. Remain enthusiastic and
positive about the tasks you delegate even if you are experiencing
frustrations of your own. Remember, as the leader, others take their
cues from you as to how they should approach their work and interact
with one another.
Provide support. Make sure everyone
knows you are available to assist with any conflicts or concerns that
arise. Checking in periodically with each team member can alert you to
potential problems before they escalate.
Empower the team. When delegating
assignments, also delegate as much authority as possible. Professionals
who have permission to run their parts of the project and make key
decisions develop a sense of ownership in the work that can
significantly enhance the quality of their contributions.
“Give people responsibility for
specific pieces of a case and let them operate in ways most comfortable
for them. As difficult as this might be, you can’t tell everyone how to
do things and you shouldn’t waste energy becoming frustrated because
they aren’t doing the work the way you would. The end result is the
important thing — as long as team members choose approaches that are
cost efficient,” advised paralegal Kathy Riley of Perkins Coie in
Offer chances to grow. Managed
effectively, teams also can provide opportunities to develop new skills.
When possible, offer members challenging assignments and the chance to
work with associates or even partners.
Litigation paralegal Elva Gonzalez,
also of Perkins Coie, testified about the value of enriching team
“Being part of a team … opens up some
unique skill-enhancement possibilities. Several years ago, I was allowed
to work on a big case where we had to collect, image and produce 2
million pages of documents,” she said. “This was before there were so
many companies offering the imaging component. We had to create and
devise a plan as well as train and supervise a number of paralegals and
paralegal assistants to accomplish the task. My computer skills and
supervisory abilities improved with each opportunity on that case. Now,
whenever possible, I try to offer the people with whom I work as many
interesting and educational assignments as time and workloads permit.”
Provide positive feedback. Let people
know when they are doing a good job by celebrating both individual and
team successes as well as goals reached under deadline. Recognition
doesn’t have to be part of an elaborate, structured program.
Look ahead. Don’t become so caught up
in day-to-day concerns that you fail to see signs that a project is in
potential danger. If you sense that a project is becoming more complex
than the original group can handle, recommend an increase in staff to
the lead attorney. The ability to recognize when you need help — and ask
for it — can prevent your team from falling behind or falling prey to
“I’ve seen a number of teams that
were started small because we thought the case would be quickly
resolved,” Gonzalez explained. “But then things changed and got far more
complicated. Where we expected to collect several thousand pages of
documents, we ended up with several hundred thousand. The potential of
having to staff up or ramp down has to be part of the plan, and it’s
best to have a fluid system in place.”
Prudent planning includes considering
the use of full-time staff drawn from other cases that are coming to a
close as well as temporary legal professionals. Structure your team for
possible expansion or downsizing so that training can be accomplished
“If you start out with a system so
complicated that only one or two people know how to make things work, it
will be a mistake down the road,” Riley said.
Continue to communicate. Make sure
information flows freely and often. Schedule regular meetings or
teleconferences so everyone on your team remains aware of what other
team members are doing and the overall progress. When feasible, invite
the lead attorney to give an update on the case.
Sharing information on a consistent
basis also can help create and reinforce a bond among your legal team
“Communication is a two-way street,”
Gonzalez said. “Allowing time for all members to offer their
observations and ask questions helps the team develop a distinct
personality that will help it work more smoothly. Encourage members not
to be afraid to reconfirm directions or information.”
Delegating effectively and managing
productive teams is an essential part of being a senior paralegal in
almost all law firms and corporate legal departments today. By enhancing
your planning, leadership, motivation and communication abilities, you
will bring out the best in a team of legal professionals. In addition,
you will establish yourself as an effective paralegal manager who
delivers results for your clients and your firm.