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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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One response to “Delegation implies down, assignment of work can be horizontal”

  1. Delegation _should_ include empowering the other person. Otherwise you’re a supervisor, not a manager (of people or projects). Good delegation skills take practice and benefit from maturity, both individual and organizational maturity.
    You can also assign tasks up, not just across or down. There are three ways to do this, two of them good.
    1) When you need the ‘throw weight’ of the senior person — perhaps her presence with the client, or to clear an internal roadblock, or make a high-level contact….
    2) When the manager has specific skills that the assigner lacks, or superior skills when that’s a critical factor. This is not a good long-term solution, since it’s usually better to develop the skills yourself, but sometimes it’s the best way to solve smaller problems on a large project.
    3) The bad way to do it is passive-aggressive style, by not getting your work done and forcing the senior person to step in. You’d think this would be a CLM, a career-limiting move, but I’ve seen it done subtly, effectively, and repeatedly as a form of office politics. Like #1 and #2, this variant depends on the availability and willingness (gullibility?) of the senior person and her acknowledgement, active or passive, that this is an effective short- and long-term solution to the present problem.