Supervision: good practice for remote supervision of junior staff and trainee solicitors

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, since March 2020, many solicitors have been working and supervising junior staff, including trainee solicitors, remotely.

Firms and organisations are now considering future working arrangements, with many looking at a hybrid model with some form of remote working arrangements, alongside time spent in the office.

This guidance sets out some areas of good practice that firms and organisations should consider when deciding working arrangements, to ensure that junior staff and trainees are appropriately supervised and supported when working remotely.

These are not requirements; firms and organisations should interpret these as is most appropriate for their business. This will likely look different depending on the size of firm and type of work undertaken.

It may be that some areas are more applicable than others, but all should be considered as part of the process of deciding future working arrangements.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has advised firms to satisfy themselves that they have appropriate and adequate measures in place to ensure they can effectively supervise their trainee solicitors.

‘Appropriate supervision’ may look different in every firm. The term provides a degree of flexibility for firms and the SRA has indicated that it will be as flexible as possible, whilst ensuring that the required standards are met.

The SRA’s position is that there is no maximum period for remote supervision.

If any issues should arise around misconduct or dishonesty, these should be treated in the usual way. Firms will remain accountable for the decisions they make on trainee supervision, and any arrangements must align to the SRA’s overall approach to enforcement.

We have a practice note on supervision, which covers how supervisors can be both a good solicitor and a good supervisor, and gives those being supervised guidance on how to ensure they receive effective supervision.

Remote supervision can be carried out using:

  • phone calls
  • video conferencing
  • email, or
  • other appropriate measures available

Depending on the nature of the work the junior staff are doing, a mix of different communication methods will be suitable.

It is, however, important that junior staff communicate regularly in person when possible, whichever other methods are used. This allows supervisors to ascertain how they are faring and for more informal communication to take place, where queries or issues can more easily be raised.

Clear and regular communication

Clear communication and feedback are essential to enabling junior staff to understand their roles and responsibilities, and should not drop off because of remote working.

Regular catch ups with a supervisor or as a team are essential to gauge the workload and wellbeing of individuals, as well as to help team members understand how their work fits together.

Team members should be given the opportunity to ask questions. There are no ‘silly’ questions if they help the team to work together better and individuals to better understand their role and responsibilities.

Fluid communication can greatly reduce stress and support all your staff to get on with the job in hand.

Replicating the benefits of close proximity

Supervisors should also consider how to replicate the benefits of working in close proximity. For example, when sharing a working space, junior staff were able to learn through observing the supervisor in action, by discussing matters and by being able to ask frequent questions.

Supervisors should consider how to share their thinking, for example by:

  • ‘thinking out loud’ when they are working
  • using technology to draft together on separate screens
  • using coaching questions to elicit answers from their junior staff rather than providing solutions

It is also important to consider how more casual types of discussion can be facilitated.

For example, when new work is assigned, it may be a good idea to schedule a short call to discuss what is required and address any questions, rather than just sending an email. It can then be good practice to follow up with an email to confirm and clarify details, which can be referred back to.

Feedback arrangements

Channels for feedback, supervisory meetings and regular catch ups must be maintained, whatever working patterns are established.

The culture of getting in touch and openly discussing any issues as and when they arise should be promoted, rather than waiting for formal catch ups or feedback opportunities. It's good to check-in as well as check-up.

It may be that feedback takes the form of regular one-to-one video calls, or a scheduled meeting when both parties are in the office. Arrangements will depend on what's most suitable for the members of staff concerned and the nature of the feedback.

For example, a short phone or video call can sometimes be more beneficial than lengthy written feedback, particularly since it can be more difficult to control the tone of communication via written formats.

Written feedback can be beneficial where it can then be used as part of regular reviews – or kept as part of a candidate's records towards their training or qualifying work experience (QWE), if they are following the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) route – particularly where it is more structured.

Junior staff should also ensure they keep accurate records of any approvals and instructions given, as well as their supervisor’s sign-off where appropriate.

These records may also be useful to consider where they have needed to seek advice or guidance, as this could help identify learning needs to address through continuing competence.

It's important to consider appropriate working patterns and arrangements when making decisions about hybrid working.

Staff should:

  • have access to a suitable remote working environment
  • be supplied with appropriate IT or other equipment if necessary

In considering appropriate working patterns, there's a balance to strike between:

  • affording all staff the same opportunities to work remotely
  • the developmental and other advantages of junior staff, in particular, spending time working in the office

There should be clear reasoning for putting in place different requirements, which must be justified. For example, an organisation may expect junior staff to be in the office more than their supervisor, in order to interact with other, more senior, members of staff in the office on those days.

This allows junior staff to benefit from valuable learning experiences with a range of senior staff.

Overlap

Supervisors and junior staff, including trainees, should have at least two days of overlap in the office per week, as far as possible.

The overall working patterns may differ, but this overlap will allow:

  • more informal, ad hoc communication  
  • in-person supervision and meetings
  • junior lawyers to observe and therefore improve their legal knowledge, client care skills and strategy

Overlap also provides a good opportunity for supervisors to check in on their supervisees’ wellbeing, how they are managing their workload and their stress levels. This is more difficult to do remotely, and supervisors should consider this when looking at working arrangements.

Ideally, the number of days of overlap should be higher for newer trainees and new joiners to the organisation. Organisations will need to bear in mind reasonable adjustments for disabled employees in order to make this possible.

Set clear expectations

Firms and organisations should be clear which arrangements apply when working remotely, for example:

  • setting clear working hours and expectations, and
  • ensuring that senior staff model the expected behaviours and do not unreasonably make demands on junior staff outside of these arrangements

One of the issues that has arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic is virtual presenteeism, with junior staff in particular feeling that they were expected to be available at all hours and respond immediately to emails and enquiries. This perceived expectation can lead to increased stress, mental ill-health and unhealthy working practices. Leadership teams should monitor this closely.

Where lunch or other regular breaks would usually be taken, these should also be taken when working remotely, and factored in when allocating work and scheduling meetings.

However, law firm leaders should should recognise that some staff may prefer to work non-standard hours due to a range of factors. It may be appropriate to have a conversation to look at managing these preferences, where the business allows.

Another area to consider is email etiquette. The appropriate framework for this depends on a firm's working culture, which should be given thought and attention.

Simple measures could include:

  • clearly stating whether an email is urgent, or
  • setting a timeframe for response

These will help junior staff to respond appropriately, without feeling pressure to work unsociable hours unnecessarily.

The more casual opportunities for development brought by being in the office will not arise so readily when working remotely.

As such, make sure that junior staff (particularly trainees) can still experience the same opportunities, such as:

  • taking part in meetings
  • attending court
  • meeting clients
  • having access to the same variety of work

For example, when working remotely, including junior staff in meetings by video can help maintain the benefit of this work experience to at least some degree.

Involving junior staff in meetings offers them the opportunity to experience professional skills (such as management and delegation) as well as business skills (like billing and client development).

Supervisors should also consider which opportunities are best offered in person – even if they could in theory be managed remotely – for instance, including junior staff in taking instructions, negotiations and court work where possible, as these are important learning opportunities.

Think about pairing a junior staff member with a partner in meetings and ask them to prepare for and attend negotiations, and draft documents, together.

Many firms and organisations use a mixture of emails, web chat or instant messaging, voice calls and video calls when working remotely.

It's important to use video calls where possible to allow senior staff to get to know junior staff and particularly trainees, to recognise their faces and be better able to include them in ongoing work.

It's also positive for team morale and bonding to have time to interact in a less formal setting.

Be mindful of new starters, as new junior members may find it particularly daunting to join a team remotely. Teams could set aside some time at the beginning or end of a meeting for a less formal discussion.

Share clear guidance on any behaviours expected when using these different technologies. For example, if staff are expected to adhere to a certain dress code when meeting with external people, be clear about whether this continues to apply for video calls.

Ahead of internal and external calls, it's good to ask if any participants have accessibility requirements or require reasonable adjustments, just as you would for an in-person event.

Be alert to individual needs when making arrangements. While video can help staff who lip read, those with impairments that affect their appearance may be uncomfortable.

It's also important to ensure that the meeting is accessible to those working remotely and those in the office, and everyone can interact effectively.

The boundaries between home and work life should be maintained, and all staff should be aware of the possibility for indirect discrimination that may apply when viewing the homes of staff (for example where religious icons may be visible).

Firms should allow staff to use the backgrounds available as part of this technology where staff may not feel comfortable sharing their homes.

There's been a shift towards greater consideration of employees’ wellbeing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressures and stresses this has caused.

This is a positive step that should be carried through to usual business. It's good practice to consider how a change in working arrangements may positively or negatively affect an employee’s wellbeing.

When carrying out supervision, it's important to consider that it's harder to know how people are managing without the close contact that you'd experience being in an office together every day.

Creating a support network

Some staff may struggle with work or life issues which are affecting their work. In order to ensure any issues are picked up early and addressed, it's important to ask staff how they are regularly, in a confidential and secure environment. One way to do this may be to make time to check in at the start or end of one-to-one calls or meetings.

In addition, consider how best to set an atmosphere where staff feel comfortable approaching supervisors with problems – for example by having regular one-to-ones where issues can be raised in private.

Teams would also benefit from opportunities to speak informally, build up relationships and get to know new members of staff. This increases the support network available for staff members, both day to day and if issues should arise.

Firms and organisations may, where possible, consider having a dedicated and trained mental health officer available for contact. This person can offer confidential help to staff who are struggling but may not feel comfortable speaking to their supervisor.

As a starting point for those looking to begin these conversations, we've produced guidance on supporting wellbeing in the workplace.

Dedicated disability officer

In addition to this, firms and organisations may consider it useful to have a dedicated disability officer.

The disability officer would act as a point of contact for disabled employees to discuss new working environments, reasonable adjustments, and any changes they might require but are not comfortable speaking to their supervisor about.

Before COVID-19, many disabled solicitors requested reasonable adjustments to work remotely, but this was often refused.

The effectiveness of this way of working has now been proven, and this will add weight to the argument that remote working should be considered a reasonable adjustment.

We commissioned research into disabled people’s experiences, which led to the tips and suggestions in the COVID-19 section of the resource on easy wins and action points for disability inclusion.

Many of the suggestions are good practice for both disabled and non-disabled staff.

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