How to Delegate: How to Start Delegating Work To Your Assistant

how to delegateLadies: let’s talk about the art of delegating work to your secretary, assistant, or another third party. More and more I feel like knowing how to delegate is key to success in work and life — you can’t micromanage everything. Besides, if you bill by the hour, remember that your client doesn’t want to pay, say, $500 an hour for someone to photocopy something! So: what tasks do you delegate? How did you learn how to delegate, and what are your best tips for women thinking about what they should assign to others? (Previously: we’ve talked about how to show your appreciation to a great assistant, and when to fire a bad assistant, as well as apps like Fiverr that let you delegate some things to third parties.)

For my $.02, for working women with an assistant, I’d seriously look at delegating tasks like:


  • scheduling calls and conferences
  • booking conference rooms
  • booking travel
  • photocopying
  • entering handwritten changes (to be reviewed by you later on a redline)
  • transcribing dictated documents/emails/letters
  • taking notes / processing notes so they’re part of the file
  • expenses
  • entering time sheets
  • filing

For people working with a direct subordinate, such as a 4th year attorney assigned to manage a 1st year attorney on a case, you can expand further. Remember, this is part of how your subordinate will learn and grow; no one likes a boss who won’t delegate. (Note though, that if you’re vaguely senior to someone, rather than a direct manager, there’s a really fine line with assigning work. When I was just starting out I once had someone who held the same title as me (but had been there about a year longer) try to assign me some of her work… which I didn’t appreciate.)

  • doing a first pass on documents, emails, briefings
  • doing research for important points / fact-checking research someone else has done
  • following up with clients to ask questions or clarify things

In your personal life, of course, you can delegate a ton as well, freeing time up for other things. For example:

Lately I’ve come to look at internet shopping as a form of delegation. Instead of driving to the store to pick things out I (sometimes) pay for them to send me things for my review at my own schedule. It’s hard to pay for shipping sometimes, but whether it’s $6 from a clothing store or $100+ from a furniture store, it’s worth it to me. Ditto for ordering groceries online. It costs more than going to the store, but I’m effectively delegating the act of walking the aisles, hunting for ingredients, and lugging the groceries home.

Ladies, what do you delegate to an assistant, whether to an assistant or secretary or in your personal life? 



  1. This is all well and good, until your assistant/junior person is too busy with someone more important’s work, meaning that your choice is either (1) wait 3 hours to have something typed up when it needs to be done promptly, or (2) do it yourself.

    • Anonymous :

      Or is incompetent. Somehow my competent secretary got fired when my group lost some people, and they kept the one who, if I ask her to do something, somehow manages to make it take more of my time than if I had just done it myself in the first place. (No, I wasn’t asked my opinion on which secretary to keep and which to let go. And this happened when I was out of town. Clearly I am still not over this.).

      • Anonymous :

        I had this issue with a previous assistant (lucky I’ve been assigned someone else in the interim). I actually got the feeling that it was intentional on her part to make it more of a hassle for me to ask her to do it so that I (the relatively junior person) wouldn’t ask her too much and she could focus on other work/not work. I was persistent in delegating even when it cost me just as much time as doing it myself and eventually her work product improved – still prefer my new assistant though.

        • Anonymous :

          Yea, for a while I thought this might be it, but I think she’s just not good. And the frustrating thing is she’s been here 20+ years. I’ve been here 2. She should really know how to do stuff she asks me about and should have known for years.

      • Anon Lawyer :

        I will delegate at home (get a cleaning service) but I don’t think it’s worth it for me to delegate at work because most of the staff are incompetent. I try but I spend so much supervising that I really only delegate for low-level admin stuff i.e. photocopying etc.

        My assistant has made so many mistakes, I don’t even comprehend how you can be so incompetent.

    • Anonymous :


      The biggest cost-sucking element we have in my team is lack of junior capacity. Mid-levels and seniors end up having to absorb junior and paralegal work because it has to be done, and then our fees are astronomical.

      Signed: Senior Associate who spent 8 hours preparing execution packets because the juniors and paralegals were too busy.

    • Anonymous :

      My assistant is brutal. Lovely young woman. Way over her head. No, I had no input and continue to have no input. I’ve tried coaching her (“this is where I would look for this information if I didn’t know the answer”, and giving her reasonable timelines so she can prioritize tasks). It honestly takes me far longer to manage her than do it myself.

      • Shopping challenged :

        Try being more direct. Instead of saying “here is where I would look”, tell her “look here, here, and here”. She has time to be able to prioritize, but does she? You might need to ask her how she has prioritized tasks currently on her plate. Some people do not comprehend open-ended, gentle “suggestions” well, or don’t realize that they are actually closer to commands.

    • Paralegal :

      I’m a longtime reader for the fashion, but I would like to offer a suggestion. I think someone may have posted similar when it came up in the comments:

      As support staff in a top-heavy environment, I have a few thoughts to make your assistant/juniors work smarter/better:

      -Send instructions through email. Make them detailed. I have a whole folder of instructions on how to do various things, and I refer back to it until I can automate the process myself. It also means fewer questions/interruptions for you.

      -Give me advance warning when you need something done. My favorite attorney will say something when she knows she will need a lot of help such as “by the way, we have filings next week so please set aside a few hours on Thursday and Friday to handle this.” It especially helps when you support a few people on different projects. And it makes it easier for me to plan my day, and I know how to make time for others too.

      Small things like that go such a long way!

      • This is good advice. I have a whole folder of stock emails with detailed instructions redacted sample documents attached. So I can send the instructions and the sample document to any staff person, and all but the grossly incompetent know exactly what to do. My guess is that most attorneys have tasks that could be standardized like this, but for some reason it is popular to reinvent the wheel with every project. Billable hours, I guess? I don’t have time for that. Sure, the details for each project can change, but it helps me so much to have a standardized starting point. With my canned email database, I can delegate many tasks to any staff member with the click of a button.

  2. Anonymous :

    I’m a second year associate in Biglaw. I delegate as much as I can, such as cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry and dry cleaning, etc. I don’t have enough time to do these things without my life being in chaos. I’m happy to pay people to do these things for me. It helps me focus as much as I can on work.

    • Marshmallow :

      Same here. I responded below about work delegation, but I try to delegate personal chores as much as I can too. Fortunately my husband is home more than I am to keep up with cooking and laundry, but we use a cleaning service and a meal-planning service (Fresh20, which we love). Moving into a doorman building last year was such an improvement, because we don’t have to plan our day around deliveries or dry cleaning pickup. We’re thinking of getting a dog next year during my clerkship, and I’m sure once I go back to the firm we’ll wind up using a dog walking service or doggy daycare. I’ve really learned the value of my time (and sanity) these past couple of years.

    • Anonymous :

      I outsource housecleaning, and school lunch making and kid laundry (part time housekeeper/childminder). She has the children for 2 hours a day, and is at the house alone for 3 hours a day. I definitely do not get 15 hours worth of housecleaning and laundry done, but it is too much work to get someone else or make other arrangements right now.

      I would love love love to outsource grocery shopping. Alas I have celiac disease and need to read every label every time, as recipes sometimes change.

      Am thinking of giving up our “personal chef” service that comes every 5 weeks. It is very “meh” for what we pay. I would to try Blue Apron, as I do like to cook, but there is nothing similar available in our area, and also, celiac disease.

      • Shopping challenged :

        I outsource school lunch making to the school cafeteria!

        For celiac, have you seen the app “Whazinit”? (I think that’s what it’s called, or some variation on “what’s in it”)? You tell it what ingredients you must avoid, scan each item, and it lets you know if they’re ok. You could require a grocery shopper to use it, and let them know you won’t be paying for any items they buy that contain certain ingredients (you could do that without the app too, but then they’d have to know where the offending chemicals can “hide”).

        • Shopping challenged :

          ^ gluten. Don’t know why I couldn’t think of it a second ago.

      • I’m glad to see I’m not the only one. We have a lovely old couple in our building who were looking to supplement their retirement and the wife preps school lunches on a Sunday. She makes gorgeous dishes from the country she was born in which also stops the whinging when DH/I make the bland staples of the barely kitchen competent the rest of the week.

    • Anonymous :

      I delegate all recurring chores except grocery shopping to our housekeeper. She comes for a full day each week and cleans, washes and folds laundry, irons and cooks our dinners. I hired her after going through a period where I worked 7 days a week for about 3 months, and decided I wanted to spend my very limited free time doing things I enjoyed.

      • Wildkitten :

        Does she cook 7 days of dinner on that one day, or only dinner for that day?

        How much does a service like that cost?

      • This sounds amazing. We have a house cleaner, and she does wash sheets and towels but not other laundry (although she might if I asked, but she dries everything on HIGH so I don’t know if I’d trust her, and English is not her first language, so I’d worry that I couldn’t get give good enough instructions).

  3. Senior Attorney :

    Along the lines of delegating tasks in my personal life, lately I’ve been delegating meal planning and grocery shopping to Blue Apron. I have been ridiculously happy with it. Gentleman Friend and I take turns getting the box sent to our respective houses on alternate weeks and it’s been a real game-changer. Tasty meals, reasonably healthy, and I feel like it’s helped improve my cooking skills.

    I have a few free weeks (three meals for two) to give away so if anybody wants them, email me at Seniorattorney1 at gmail and I’ll send you the link. (Honestly I’m not affiliated with them. Just a really happy customer!)

    • +1 for Blue Apron/Home Chef. I love to cook but hate to meal plan/grocery shop. I have cooked waaaaaay more since I started using these services. The food is good, relatively healthy, good portion sizes and it introduces me to using new ingredient/ techniques. Of course it’s more expensive than grocery shopping yourself, but way cheaper than eating out. Totally worth it, imo.

  4. Marshmallow :

    Yes, I will be watching this thread. I already delegate most of the bulleted items to my assistant, who is competent but not super fast. So if I need a copy made right away or a redline run immediately, I’ll just do it myself. I’m still junior, but just gaining enough experience that I’m starting to delegate to more junior associates. It’s very tricky because we’re at similar levels and basically peers. Typically if I have something major that needs to get done, I’ll talk to the higher-ups and kind of feed them the assignment so it comes from them, not me. Then the higher-up gives an instruction like, “ask Marshmallow if you need help/ please run your work product through Marshmallow before it comes to me.”

    One issue I’m facing is that QC’ing the work of others sometimes takes so much time I feel like I might as well do it myself. I’m not sure whether I’m QC’ing too thoroughly or if this is just the nature of the beast until those under me get more experience on the team. Reviewing written work like a brief or a memo doesn’t take too much time, but for detailed and nitpicky trial prep things, I find myself looking at every page or every word. Any tips for checking others’ work thoroughly but efficiently?

  5. Agree with all this minus the point about entering handwritten changes. Printing a document out, writing all over it, then asking your assistant to make the changes for you doubles the amount of time to complete the project. Unless you’re editing a document away from your office and printing is therefore necessary, just make the changes on the computer yourself.

    • I think it depends on the changes. If I have to start messing with formatting, table of contents, cross-references between sections, I’m delegating that.

    • I’m a big believer in printing important documents for editing. I find many more mistakes when it’s in front of me on paper rather than the computer. I usually print, turn away from computer, hand-write edits, and give to my assistant to make the changes. Obviously would not do this for every email or when an urgent response is necessary.

      • Anonymous :

        +1. I prefer to hand edit documents and I’m not charging a client $600 an hour to input those changes.

    • As others have said, it depends on how you edit – I print to edit even if I’m making the changes myself.

      I’d also note (although this isn’t relevant with secretaries) that, in my experience (both as a junior associate and as someone who delegates work now), working through a senior person’s hand-marked changes is one of the best ways to learn. If I make all the edits myself, my junior associate doesn’t see what I changed and have to think through how to implement that change. (And yes, he could run a redline and see what I did, but it’s not the same type of learning experience.)

  6. Any other bitter underemployed job hunters out there? I lost my in-house counsel job in September of last year
    (my employer was kind enough to tell us this was happening in Jan of 2015 that this would happen) but despite 8 months of hardcore job hunting, the only job I could find was a humiliating contracts manager role. I took this crappy job in order to pay the bills and have benefits 9the only good thing about this position) and have been looking for a new job since last winter to no avail. Even in situations where the interview goes well, it seems like at the last minute, the perfect candidate with gold-plated credentials drops out of the sky. Will I ever get another job that I am not ashamed to have?
    Anyone else out there feel this way?

    • I am wildly underemployed. It sucks and is soul sucking. Sometimes I just have to laugh in order not to cry.

    • Unemployed anon :

      I’m a bitter UNemployed job hunter. I lost my associate position a few months ago after work slowed down. I would love a contracts manager role. Shut up and be grateful you have something.

  7. Anonymouse :

    Speaking of delegating personal things — suggestions for a cleaning service in NoVA? I could do with someone to do a nice deep clean (i.e. more than my occasional wipe down) of my bathrooms/kitchen maybe once or twice a month and I can never find a good time to do it.

    I know about Handy but is there any other similar service I should consider?

    • Highly recommend Giselle at I Bring You Perfection. Expensive, but it’s a legit business if that’s a concern (versus paying someone in cash who may not be paying taxes). She is super thorough and very friendly.

    • Wildkitten :

      I have these folks come once a month:

  8. In addition to Blue Apron (above), I outsource house cleaning. I’ve used handy for over a year and it works really well for me. I cycled through several providers (mostly good to great, one terrible) until I found someone who is excellent and now I only use her. I hate cleaning, so it’s worth every penny. I do light cleaning as necessary in between and she gives my place a good deep clean every 2 weeks.

  9. Shopping challenged :

    Can anyone give me tips on how to a better delegator? I micromanage at work, ever since I had an assistant who had to enter a score for each person in a list, and I got hit with angry responses. Her defense? “I was only off by one line”. Still shaking my head at that one! And I’m not much better at it with cleaning services either.

    • Anonymous :

      let it go, let it go. I think for micromanagers, it’s to accept that you cannot do EVERYTHING

    • Anonymous :

      I saw this post super-late (different timezone), but maybe you still read this reply. It is absolutely normal you want to prevent such a mistake from happening again. It is kinda your job. That is not the same thing as micromanaging though. If you get back a work product from a delegatee, make sure your proofing focuses on actual mistakes, not on “I would have done this differently/phrased it differently/picked the other buffet option for the event”. This takes a LOT of practice, but try to differentiate between what is really wrong vs. not to your taste. And then, as other anon points out, let it go.
      In turn, this enables you to put yourself in your assistant’s shoes and give her more detailed instructions next time. Then she knows what details are important to you to have done a certain way.
      But really, mainly, let it go. I go crazy watching my spouse do the cleaning. He doesn’t do it “the right way”. But you know what? It ends up good enough and I’d rather not do it myself! Cause THAT is the perpetual tradeoff: good enough result with some of my time freed-up or perfect result with me buckling down to achieve it.

  10. From the perspective of an experienced admin, it really helps when the executives I support give me time targets. I’ll have general tasks, but they’ll say, “this is semi-urgent, need it by tomorrow end of day” or “urgent, please print by 12:45pm” or “not urgent, but would like to have by early next week”. It’s enormously helpful, because it’s not always obvious to an admin what your priorities really are and what level of importance or emergency an item has.
    Also, while it’s pretty natural (not necessarily good) for people to not especially want to work hard or fast, it’s amazing how effective praise goes. When an executive says “this is great, thank you!” or “Wow, that was fast! Thanks so much for getting that back so quickly!” my own motivation to do things for them at my FASTEST and BEST (versus just average and acceptable) sky-rockets.
    Admins often feel unappreciated and looked down on. It can feel like people think they are stupid or slow or menial. I believe lots of targeted, repeated praise (even if it seems excessive to you) could improve the performance of underwhelming admins. In my opinion, it would be well worth taking the time to communicate the “great job!” and “thanks!” to them.

    • SleepyBri :

      I second giving at least general deadlines. I have a full time job running a Testing Center, but my department head gives me projects frequently because she trusts I’ll get them done to her standards. However, if she doesn’t give me at least general guidelines of when she needs it, it makes scheduling my workflow pretty hard. Do I drop everything and do it, only to find out she didn’t need it until next Tuesday, or put it on the back burner, and it’s only half done when she comes to collect?

  11. On another note, I have my groceries delivered by Safeway. It’s the best! I’ll never go to an actual grocery store again if I can help it. So completely worth the delivery charge to me!
    I also use online shopping as a way of saving time. Delivery fees are worth it for me. And Amazon Prime is a lifesaver (or at least a big timesaver for me!)
    Currently thinking of getting a cleaning service to come to my condo too.

  12. I finally have a competent admin. She’s not perfect but she’s very good at her “core business functions.” I’ll come for anyone who tries to mess with her.

    I cook but I set firm limits with my significant other. I’m not also packing lunches (unless it is storing leftovers) and washing the dishes. And crackers and fancy cheese count as dinner at least one night a week.

  13. I’m way late to this party, but I’m searching the blog for advice on how to hire a personal assistant. How can one find good candidates for this? I don’t have a ton of stuff to ask someone to do, I’ve asked my friends/colleagues and they’ve never hired anyone for this (though they’re interested now!). I could really use someone who could comparison shop for homeowner’s insurance rates, call and set up the cable guy to install internet when I move, cancel the old service, so on and so forth. I’m thinking someone with experience at doing these things in their own life, rather than a college kid who might be cheap but not wise in this way, would be good, as I don’t want to invest a ton of time in instructing someone. Otherwise I’d just do it myself (heck, that’s why I’m already the world’s worst delegator).

    And then, do people give PA’s credit card numbers and personal data like passcodes etc, so they can actually accomplish this stuff?

    And does anyone know around how much an hour one can expect to pay someone for these services?
    Thanks, a PA sounds like it could be a great solution, but I just don’t know how to make the magic happen :)

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