Delegation implies down, assignment of work can be horizontal

As I thought about the advantages of large law departments, I thought of delegation and assignment. Bigger departments have more lawyers and paralegals, so they can use both to spread the work around to better match the person’s skills.

That led me to consider the differences between the two verbs, assign and delegate. To me, “delegate” implies sending work to a junior person and some level of ongoing supervision and review at the end (See my post of Aug. 28, 2008: delegation in a law department with 14 references.). You delegate work to a paralegal or to someone who reports to you, vertically down the reporting structure.

The term “assignment” suggests that the work is handed off to a capable person and nothing more need be done. You shift the work, sometimes across the law department as when litigation assumes responsibility for a dispute that goes bad.

My dictionary disagrees, as it defines assign as “to designate, give, or reserve (something) for a specific person or purpose.” Delegate means “to commit (powers, functions, etc.) to another as agent or deputy.” I don’t think the common use of delegate includes the empowerment of the delegee; it means they are charged with getting something done.

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