Determining decision-making authority

In my experience, newer associates often have challenges in determining what they do and don’t have the authority to do.  Some may take on too little authority, undermining their usefulness to more senior lawyers who need not be consulted about every decision, and others may too on too much, possibly compromising strategic decisions that should be the senior lawyer’s call.

Senior lawyers bear much responsibility for these missteps, because they should have the foresight and ability to define what authority the lawyers they supervise may exercise.  However, all too often, everyone assumes that everyone is in agreement on what’s appropriate — right until the assumption comes crashing down in a rant of frustration at being disturbed yet again “for nothing” or a ballistic explosion at finding out that an incurable decision has been made without a full appreciation for its impact.

I’ve been reading a marvelous book recently: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, by Susan Scott.  In addition to setting forth a valuable approach to conversations that facilitate exploration of the truth and collaborative problem-solving, Scott sets out a Decision Tree that supervising lawyers can use to explain a junior lawyer’s scope of authority — quickly, simply, and in a framework that permits easy shorthand reference in the future.

Scott’s Decision Tree comprises 4 categories of decisions (quoted from page 119, Fierce Conversations):

Leaf Decisions: Make the decision.  Act on it.  Do not report the action you took.

Branch Decisions: Make the decision.  Act on it.  Report the action you took daily, weekly, or monthly.

Trunk Decisions: Make the decision.  Report your decision before you take action.

Root Decisions: Make the decision jointly, with input from many people.  These are the decisions that, if poorly made and implemented, could cause major harm to the organization.

It’s quickly apparent how these categories can be used in the practice setting.  In the context of litigation, for instance, a partner might identify deciding whether documents are relevant and thus to be produced as leaf decisions, deciding what witnesses to interview as branch decisions, preparing discovery requests as trunk decisions, and deciding whether to move for a temporary injunction as a root decision.  As the associate advances, more and more decisions will become leaf and branch decisions, which is a strong indication that the associate is becoming more skilled and thus merits more authority.

This same principle is useful in a wide variety of other settings.  Suppose, for example, that you had decided to embark on a marketing program, and you decided to mail firm literature to some unidentified people and to invite others to lunch, to accept some requests to speak at CLE meetings or to write articles, and to use your box seats at a sporting event to thank or to woo particular clients.  The Decision Tree formula would permit you to delegate this process to a large extent to your assistant by explaining which steps you want her to undertake on her own without reporting back (sending out the marketing materials to new contacts), which you want her to do and to let you know about (setting up lunches with those in a designated group), which you want her to filter and then check with you about (”I don’t think you’ll want to speak at these conferences, but client XYZ always attends this one, so you may want to consider that”), and which decisions require input from you and perhaps others (which clients and colleagues should be invited to the playoffs).

Think today about how you can use Scott’s Decision Tree to clarify your own scope of authority and that of others with whom you work.

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