How to Safely Delegate Legal Work to Non-Attorneys

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By Paige Zandri
| Legal Process Management

How to Dedicate Legal Work

Companies often hire in-house counsel to take on the legal tasks that they had previously sent out to expensive law firms that bill by the hour. However, as companies grow, so do those legal tasks. Let’s look at some ways in-house counsel can reduce legal expenses by delegating relatively minor legal tasks to non-attorney employees.

Identify the Right Tasks and the Right Employees

Not all legal tasks can or should be delegated to other employees in the company. Ethics rules in many states prohibit the delegation of certain work to non-attorney employees, such as appearing in court on behalf of a company or giving legal advice. Beyond the ethics rules, most companies would agree that high-risk or overly complex legal work should remain with in-house or outside counsel. Instead, consider delegating simple legal functions, such as routine filings and contract management, to non-legal employees. 

Once you identify the work that can safely be delegated to non-legal employees, you must identify the employees best suited to take on the work. At a minimum, look for employees who are extremely detail-oriented—even the most minor legal tasks often require close attention to things like document changes, dates, and signatures. Also consider matching legal tasks with the regular functions and duties of the employees who will manage those tasks. For example, your HR employees may be able to manage routine ERISA compliance, and employees that work with specific vendors may be able to manage those vendor contracts. Employees will feel that they are furthering the goals of a project they are already connected to, and not just reducing the workload of the in-house counsel.

Manage Before, During, and After

To comply with professional ethics obligations, as well as to maximize the chances of effective delegation, you will need to oversee the work of non-legal employees before, during, and after assigning them legal work. Before assigning legal work to non-legal employees, consider creating a clear, concise set of materials to help explain their new tasks. Ideally, these materials can be standardized so as to minimize onboarding time when new employees take on these assignments. Given the inherent complexity in legal work, you should also provide ample opportunity for non-legal employees to ask your in-house counsel questions before starting the assignment and throughout its initial phases. After your non-legal employees have finished the assignment, make sure to carefully review their work before submitting it to an outside party or management. Checking the work that you delegate to non-legal employees is not just a smart thing to do—both instruction and oversight are required by many states’ ethics rules. Great in-house counsel also provide their non-legal employees an opportunity to provide feedback on the assignment and oversight procedures so that the in-house counsel can improve how he or she delegates minor legal tasks in the future.

Proceed with Caution

While delegating legal work may seem like an efficient solution for reducing your company’s legal expenses, it is important to remember that state ethics rules govern the delegation of legal work to non-legal employees. For example, many states require that lawyers provide non-legal employees with instruction and supervision concerning the ethical aspects of their employment, including obligations not to disclose confidential information or work product. In most states, if the in-house counsel learns of any misconduct on the part of the non-legal employee at a time when consequences could have been avoided and the in-house counsel failed to take reasonable remedial action, he or she can face serious sanctions. Before delegating any legal work to non-legal employees, make sure to check the specific rules in your state. Though delegating can significantly reduce the amount your company spends on outside legal fees, you should be careful to comply with any applicable state ethics rules.

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Delegating minor legal tasks can make it possible for your in-house counsel to take on the more challenging legal work that can really put a dent in your company’s legal expenses. While it may seem like a common-sense solution, make sure to consider the unique challenges that delegating legal work entails—including the complexity of the work, the risks involved, and the ethical obligations of your in-house counsel to oversee all legal work.

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