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Supervision

6 October 2011

1. Introduction

1.1 Who should read this practice note?

Any solicitor in legal practice or employment in England and Wales who is responsible for the supervision of another individual in legal practice or employment, and any supervised solicitor or trainee who would like to know what they should expect from their supervisor.

This practice note is aimed primarily at private practice, although some of the information will also be relevant in the context of in-house practice.

1.2 What is the issue?

The proper supervision of work is a legal and professional requirement. Chapter 7 of the SRA Code of Conduct places an obligation on all solicitors, particularly managers, to have a system for supervising clients' matters, including the regular checking of the quality of work by suitably competent and experienced people (outcome 7.8). You must also comply with the statutory requirements for the direction and supervision of reserved legal activities and immigration work (outcome 7.7).

Everyone has a role to play in the proper management of your practice, however it is ultimately the manager who must ensure that the outcomes in chapter 7 of the SRA Code are met.

The Law Society's Great Quality of Life Survey, published in 2007, found that good supervision was the most important factor in motivating and retaining staff. However, the skills needed to be a successful solicitor do not necessarily encompass those needed to be a good and effective manager.

This practice note provides advice on how to ensure that you can be both a good solicitor and a good supervisor, and gives those being supervised guidance on how to ensure they receive effective supervision.

1.3 Professional conduct

The following sections of the SRA Handbook are relevant to this issue:

  • SRA Code of Conduct 2011, chapter 7 on management of your business
  • Training Regulations 2011 – Part 2 – Training Provider Regulations
  • SRA Authorisation Rules for Legal Services Bodies and Licensable Bodies 2011
  • SRA Practice Framework Rules 2011

1.4 Status of this practice note

Practice notes are issued by the Law Society for the use and benefit of its members. They represent the Law Society's view of good practice in a particular area. They are not intended to be the only standard of good practice that solicitors can follow. You are not required to follow them, but doing so will make it easier to account to oversight bodies for your actions.

Practice notes are not legal advice, nor do they necessarily provide a defence to complaints of misconduct or of inadequate professional service. While care has been taken to ensure that they are accurate, up to date and useful, the Law Society will not accept any legal liability in relation to them.

For queries or comments on this practice note, contact the Law Society's Practice Advice Service.

1.5 Terminology in this practice note

Must - A specific requirement in legislation or of a principle, rule, outcome or other mandatory provision in the SRA Handbook. You must comply, unless there are specific exemptions or defences provided for in relevant legislation or the SRA Handbook.

Should  

  • Outside of a regulatory context, good practice for most situations in the Law Society's view.
  • In the case of the SRA Handbook, an indicative behaviour or other non-mandatory provision (such as may be set out in notes or guidance).

These may not be the only means of complying with legislative or regulatory requirements and there may be situations where the suggested route is not the best possible route to meet the needs of your client. However, if you do not follow the suggested route, you should be able to justify to oversight bodies why the alternative approach you have taken is appropriate, either for your practice, or in the particular retainer.

May - A non-exhaustive list of options for meeting your obligations or running your practice. Which option you choose is determined by the profile of the individual practice, client or retainer. You may be required to justify why this was an appropriate option to oversight bodies.

SRA Code - SRA Code of Conduct 2011

2007 Code - Solicitors' Code of Conduct 2007

OFR - Outcomes-focused regulation

SRA - Solicitors Regulation Authority

CPD - Continuing Professional Development

Manager - the SRA Code defines manager as:

  • a member of an LLP
  • a director of a company
  • a partner in a partnership, or
  • in relation to any other body, a member of its governing body

Lawyer - the SRA Code defines lawyer as a member of one of the following professions, entitled to practise as such:

  • the profession of solicitor, barrister or advocate of the UK
  • a profession whose members are authorised to carry on legal activities by an approved regulator other than the SRA
  • an Establishment Directive profession other than a UK profession
  • a legal profession which has been approved by the SRA for the purpose of recognised bodies in England and Wales, and
  • any other regulated legal profession specified by the SRA for the purpose of this definition

Supervisor - a person responsible for the supervision of another person (whether a paralegal, trainee or qualified lawyer). This includes not just those with ongoing responsibility for the supervision of an individual (eg a trainee supervisor), but also any person who has delegated responsibility for a piece of work - or a particular part of it - to another person, or who has undertaken responsibility for supervision of a particular matter.

Training principal - a partner, manager, director, owner, or someone of equivalent seniority and/or managerial status who meets the requirements of the SRA, as outlined in the Training Regulations 2011 Part 2 - Training Provider Regulations, and who is nominated by a training establishment to comply with Regulation 15 and take overall responsibility for the training of trainees during the training contract period.

2 SRA Principles

There are ten mandatory principles that apply to all those that the SRA regulates and to all aspects of practice. The principles can be found in the SRA Handbook.

When thinking about how to meet the outcomes in chapter 7 in the SRA Code/Handbook, you must consider the principles that apply across the SRA Handbook, including the SRA Code. You should always bear in mind what the ten principles are and use them as your starting point when implementing the outcomes.

3 Why is supervision important?

The 2007 Code states that the term 'supervision' refers to 'the professional overseeing of staff and client matters'. In a day-to-day sense, supervision means the management of people and their activities.

Good supervision is beneficial in many ways. It:

  • provides confidence in the quality of services provided to clients
  • minimises the practice's risk by supporting the timely and error-free production of work
  • provides a valuable opportunity to help individuals develop their skills
  • impacts positively on job satisfaction, which will assist with recruitment and retention at your practice
  • supports the supervisor's business by improving motivation, efficiency and profitability

4 Characteristics of good supervision

Supervision procedures may vary depending on:

  • the type of work being undertaken in your practice
  • the size of your business and number of offices
  • the number of individuals under supervision
  • the complexities of the work and the experience required
  • the number, experience and qualifications of the employees, and
  • the different working practices of groups or individuals.

Nonetheless, there are a number of key steps that can be taken to ensure good supervision:

4.1 Regular feedback

Supervisors should devote adequate time and attention to the person that they are supervising, and should be available to meet with them regularly to assess progress and offer feedback.

This ensures that the supervised person feels supported and that you are confident in both their work and development. Good feedback gives people the opportunity to:

  • learn from their actions
  • understand their strengths
  • focus their efforts to improve

Give praise and recognition where it is due and ensure areas that need improvement are discussed.

You should agree to a clear schedule for feedback meetings. This will ensure regularity and certainty for the supervised person.

Formal appraisals should be combined with more regular, informal 'catch up' meetings.

The junior staff member should also feel that they can approach the supervisor with questions or concerns about their work at any time. Regular meetings and an 'open door' policy will help to create an environment that encourages the supervised person to ask for help, find solutions to problems and take responsibility for their self-development (see 7.3 below).

4.2 Tailor your supervision

Supervision of work should be tailored to both:

  • the level of experience or seniority the supervised staff member has, and
  • the type of work being supervised

For example, trainees will need much greater supervision than a person who has many years of experience in practice.

You should anticipate that substantive advice and communication to clients generally requires a much greater level of supervision than more routine or administrative work, depending on the skills of the individual.

4.3 Effective delegation

Delegation can be an important part of providing effective supervision when supervising the work of a more inexperienced person. Successful delegation involves:

  • checking that the individual has the capacity to take on the work
  • briefing well by providing sufficient information to enable them to do the task effectively
  • explaining the background to the work and that individual's part in it
  • being clear on the results you are expecting and the deadlines
  • giving sufficient authority and resources to get the work done
  • encouraging the individual to exercise initiative and ask questions
  • giving guidance without interference or pampering

These points are expanded below.

4.3.1 Brief the supervised person effectively

A proper briefing is important when assigning work. You should give clear instructions and check that they have been understood. Provide sufficient information and factual background about a case or matter and ensure that the supervised person is aware of any specific requirements in relation to the way that the particular client likes to work, for example, within a client service agreement. The briefing should also include goals and deadlines. You may find it useful to give written instructions to more junior staff members.

You should state if a task must be done in a particular way and explain any working preferences, rather than leaving it to the other person to guess. Examples include:

  • when you expect progress reports
  • the times you are available to answer questions and offer guidance
  • whether supervised individuals may make contact with the client directly, or should check with you first

Agree whether the matter should be reviewed by you on a regular basis (eg weekly), or only when certain 'trigger points' have been reached on the file.

Check that the individual has understood what you would like them to do by asking them to summarise the task and how they plan to tackle it.

You should provide both a clear explanation of expectations relating to individual pieces of work, and an overview of the supervised person's general objectives in relation to their role. It is helpful for them to understand how their work fits into the wider vision of the practice as a business.

4.3.2 Delegate work that encourages development

The Quality of Life survey found that staff are most motivated when they have some level of responsibility and challenging work that involves a high degree of client contact. While this type of work may not be available at all times, you should keep it in mind when delegating work.

Supervisors should provide work which enables supervised individuals to develop their skills. Supervisors should pitch work at a level that will ensure that the supervised individual feels appropriate pressure to perform, but not out of their depth and fearful.

It takes time to brief someone properly and, although initially it may be quicker to perform the task yourself, the pay off will come the next time you delegate this type of work.

4.3.3 Support ongoing learning and development

You should encourage learning and development through training, whether at formal courses or through office mentoring, based on the objectives for the role of the individual being supervised. This will ensure that they feel supported and encouraged in their work. You should work with them to identify skills gaps and opportunities for development in certain areas.

4.4 Support ongoing learning and development

You should encourage learning and development through training, whether at formal courses or through office mentoring, based on the objectives for the role of the individual being supervised. This will ensure that they feel supported and encouraged in their work. You should work with them to identify skills gaps and opportunities for development in certain areas.

5. Regulatory requirements

Chapter 7 of the SRA Code places an obligation on you to ensure that there is a system for supervising clients' matters, to include the regular checking of the quality of work by suitably competent and experienced people.

Managers will remain responsible for this overall supervision and management within the practice, however day-to-day supervision may be delegated.

All staff must be supervised, whether they are employees or independent contractors, such as locums or consultants, and irrespective of where the work is actually carried out.

5.1 Qualification to supervise

In order to comply with the SRA's Authorisation Rules, every SRA-regulated body must have at least one person (i.e. lawyer manager of an authorised body, recognised sole practitioner, law centre or in-house solicitor) who is 'qualified to supervise'.

This person must have been entitled to practise as a lawyer for at least 36 months within the last ten years and must have completed the training specified by the SRA for this purpose. In calculating the 36 months, any period of entitlement to practise as a lawyer of another jurisdiction can be taken into account in addition to your time entitled to practise as a solicitor.
The person 'qualified to supervise' does not have to personally supervise all work undertaken by the firm. However, an important part of that person's responsibilities is to ensure that unqualified persons do not undertake reserved work except under the supervision of a suitably qualified person.

5.1.1 Absence of person 'qualified to supervise'

The SRA specifies that you should make arrangements for the continuation of your practice in the event of absences and emergencies, for example holiday or sick leave, with the minimum interruption to clients' business (IB 7.4). Doing so would help to establish that you are complying with the outcomes in chapter 7 of the SRA Code. This may include ensuring that there is another person who is 'qualified to supervise' in your practice.

If you are a sole practitioners, you should have an arrangement with another solicitor to supervise your practice until you return from any absence.

5.1.2 In-house practices

Certain in-house practices (eg law centres) must have a solicitor or registered European lawyer who is 'qualified to supervise' as described in rule 12 of the SRA's Practice Framework Rules.

5.2 Training and experience

If you are a manager, you must train the individuals working in your practice to maintain a level of competence appropriate to their work and level of responsibility.

Those who are supervising client matters should have sufficient legal knowledge and experience to be able to identify problems with the quality or conduct of the work they are supervising, but might not necessarily need to be an expert in the area of work. The quality of the work must be checked regularly by suitably competent and experienced people.

You should ensure that everyone with supervisory responsibilities in your practice is adequately trained. The level and type of expertise required by the supervisor will depend on:

  • The training, qualifications and experience of the individual who is being supervised
  • the type of work being undertaken, and
  • the number of individuals under supervision

6. Additional standards and protocols

Additional guidelines apply where the person being supervised is a trainee. A supervisor may also need to comply with the supervision requirements laid down by his or her practice, or as part of the practice's accreditation with a quality mark such as Lexcel or the Legal Services Commission's Specialist Quality Mark.

6.1 Training Contract Handbook

Trainee supervisors are responsible for providing practical day-to-day training and for giving trainees appropriate opportunities to meet the requirements of the training contract. Regulatory requirements relating to the development of trainee solicitors are covered in detail in the SRA Training Regulations 2011 Part 2 – Training Provider Regulations and the SRA's 'Training trainee solicitors' document, and are therefore not set out here. These resources provide detailed guidance on the responsibilities of trainee supervisors.

Throughout the training contract period, trainees must be properly supervised. Anyone involved in supervising a trainee should:

  • have an appropriate level of legal knowledge and skills in the relevant practice area
  • have adequate time and resources to supervise trainees
  • have experience or training in the supervision of trainees
  • understand the training requirements and the Practice Skills Standards, and
  • understand the system of training within the practice

The practice's training principal must ensure that anyone involved in supervising trainees has adequate legal knowledge and supervisory experience or training.

6.2 Practice management standards

Practices who have been awarded quality marks such as Lexcel and the Legal Services Commission's Specialist Quality Mark are obliged to meet the practice management standards relating to supervision procedures and processes.

In relation to supervision, the Lexcel Practice Management Standard requires that:

  • practices have a written description of their management structure which designates the responsibilities of individuals and their accountability
  • there is a named supervisor for each area of work undertaken by the practice and that supervisor must have appropriate experience of the work supervised and be competent to guide and assist others
  • practices have processes to ensure that all personnel, both permanent and temporary, are actively supervised, including processes relating to checks on incoming and outgoing correspondence; departmental, team and office meetings and communication structures; reviews of matter details in order to ensure good financial controls and the appropriate allocation of workloads, and the availability of a supervisor

These practice management standards identify supervision as an essential aspect of risk management within practices.

6.3 Internal supervision protocols

Many practices have internal supervision protocols, which define the roles and obligations of supervisors within the practice. Supervision protocols are described in more detail in section 7.2 below.

7. Encouraging good supervision

Support from senior management and from Human Resources (in larger organisations) is required to ensure good supervision practices are followed across your business. There are a number of institutional changes that you can make to encourage good supervision:

7.1 Provide training for all supervisors

You should consider providing training for supervisors to enable them to perform their supervisory duties well. Training could include:

  • people management and development skills
  • delegation skills
  • coaching skills
  • communication skills

Consideration should also be given to providing training in the management of associates to all new and existing partners. Senior associates who are responsible for the supervision of more junior persons should also receive guidance on how to supervise.

7.2 Review and clarify the supervisors' role

You should ensure that all supervisors in your practice understand the benefits of good supervision, are aware of their responsibilities and are prepared to fulfil them.

Establish guidelines or protocols that outline and clarify exactly what is expected of supervisors at your practice. A supervision protocol may:

  • outline the practice's philosophy regarding supervision, for example: why it is important, who it is of benefit to, etc
  • define the role and obligations of supervisors within the practice
  • outline the type of work that may be delegated, and to whom
  • outline the approval procedures for delegated work. Certain types of work, for example: document review and legal research, may not need, or be suitable for the closer supervision involved in, for example, advice to clients
  • provide details of the type of training that supervisors are expected to have completed, where appropriate
  • set out how supervision should be recorded so that the fact that supervision has taken place is reflected on the file
  • set parameters for 'peer review' of work carried out by partners (see 7.8 below)
  • provide guidance to junior persons on what they can expect from their supervisors and what their reciprocal responsibilities are

7.3 Encourage those being supervised to ask for help

Supervision is a two-way process. Even with all the right structures in place, it is not always possible for a supervisor to know when specific assistance is needed by the person being supervised. Those being supervised should also take responsibility for their own supervision and development.

Practices should encourage this by making it clear that they expect those being supervised to identify when it is appropriate to refer an issue to a supervisor, and to seek appropriate guidance and supervision.

An open and supportive atmosphere will foster a culture in which asking for help is seen as a natural part of personal development. A mentoring system (see 7.6 below) may also assist.

7.4 Conduct regular supervision performance reviews

Just as supervisors should have regular feedback sessions with the persons they are supervising, they should also be provided with regular reviews of their own performance. This can be achieved through meaningful and transparent annual appraisals, as well as less formal systems for monitoring progress throughout the year.

Where possible, '360° feedback' may be sought, to take in feedback from the supervised person as well as from the supervisor's superiors.

7.5 Provide adequate time for supervision duties

Supervisors may find it difficult to fulfil their responsibilities to the persons they are supervising due to their own workload commitments and billable hours target. It is important that supervisors are given sufficient time to effectively carry out their people management activities.

Encouraging supervisors to delegate appropriate work to the supervised person will have the two-fold result of freeing up more time for their supervisory role, and will provide the supervised person with more responsibility and greater job satisfaction.

7.6 Develop a mentoring system

Establishing a mentoring system within your firm may support the formal system of supervision, by providing newly qualified lawyers and those at the early stages of their career with additional face-to-face contact and advice.

7.7 Encourage informal supervision

Where possible, trainees and junior persons should share an office or office space with a partner or more senior person. This proximity:

  • provides opportunities for informal supervision by the senior person
  • enables the supervised staff member to observe and learn from the behaviour of the senior person, and
  • encourages more face-to-face communication between the supervisor and the supervised person/s

7.8 Lead by example

On occasions it may be appropriate for work undertaken by a partner to be subject to 'peer review' by another partner. This may be the case if, for example, the matter is of particularly high value, or involves a novel point of law or complex drafting. The culture of the firm is important in making the practice of peer review acceptable and encouraged.

7.9 Consult external experts

Further improvements to supervision processes within your firm could be made by obtaining advice from outside management specialists, by considering the systems employed by other practices or by investigating non-legal business approaches to supervision.

8. More information

8.1 Other products and services

8.1.1 Practice Advice Service

The Law Society provides support for solicitors on a wide range of areas of practice. The Practice Advice Service can be contacted on 020 7320 5675 from 09:00 to 17:00 on weekdays.

Visit the Practice Advice Service website.

8.1.2 SRA

The SRA regulates solicitors in England and Wales. It makes and enforces the Solicitors' Code of Conduct.

Visit the SRA website

8.1.3 Law Society publications

 
 
 

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