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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.

Learning How 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.

Getting the 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.

Knowing When 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.

Managing Effective Teams
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 responsibility.

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 case.

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 forth.

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 Seattle.

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 experiences.

“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 burnout.

“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 quickly.

“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 members.

“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.

Kathleen Call is executive director of The Affiliates, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., The Affiliates has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.

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Updated 08/25/06
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