HR and people management

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.

This means that although this guidance promotes the benefits of hybrid working arrangements, there’s no requirement for supervision to take place in-person.

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.

There is much to be gained by communicating in-person and certainly in real time, such as detecting nuance, being able to address concerns immediately and creating solutions together.

Whichever methods are used, supervisors need to be able to ascertain how those they supervise are faring and to make time 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, make suggestions and raise concerns. 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 are 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’s also important to consider how more casual types of discussions can be facilitated.

For example, when new work is assigned, it’s a good idea to schedule a short call to discuss what is required, check understanding and address any questions or issues the person may have with undertaking the task.

Spending this time, in real time, to assign work is an extremely effective way of motivating and developing your staff, as well as managing risk.

It’s also 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.

A 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 with as well as check-up on supervisees.

Where possible, feedback should be made in real time, whether through one-to-one video calls, or scheduled meetings 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.

Written feedback can also 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’s more structured.

However, it should be noted that it can be more difficult to control the tone of communication via written formats.

Junior staff should also take responsibility, by seeking feedback at regular intervals, ensuring 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 in the office

Supervisors and junior staff, including trainees, should consider the best ways of working for them and the teams they are part of.

There are a range of views on the importance, or not, of having time spent working in the office together, depending on the type of firm and the type of work undertaken.

It’s important that junior staff feel able to be proactive in requesting this overlap where they need it, and that those undertaking the role of supervisor are prepared to commit to regularly coming into the office.

As this guidance explores, good supervision can include many different elements and does not require in-person contact with a supervisor. However, it is worth considering that some overlap in the office could 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 provides another good opportunity for supervisors to check in on their supervisees’ wellbeing, how they are managing their workload and their stress levels. With some staff this can be more difficult to do remotely, and supervisors should consider this when looking at working arrangements.

The number of days of overlap is likely to be higher for newer trainees and new joiners to the organisation, as they familiarise themselves with processes and people. Organisations will need to bear in mind reasonable adjustments for disabled employees in order to make this possible.

Where members of a team work together, it can be good to come together for in-person team meetings, or events, which are one of the benefits of office culture.

One other area firms can explore is having ‘secondary supervisors’, a group of co-workers who are not formal supervisors but can provide in-person support to junior staff when the supervisor is not in the office. This is a more flexible arrangement which could work well where there is staff capacity available.

There are many benefits to this approach. Some firms believe that junior staff are able to develop more quickly when they can learn from a range of people.

It also gives junior staff the opportunity to shape and embrace career opportunities that come about through working with a wider group of people.

Set clear expectations

Firms and organisations should be clear which arrangements apply when working remotely, and supervisors should discuss working practices with their supervisees, 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 been raised with the us is virtual presenteeism, with junior staff in particular feeling that they are 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.

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.

It can be useful to block these out in calendars. It is also useful for supervisors and other senior staff to lead by example.

However, law firm leaders 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 to consider could include:

  • clearly stating whether an email is urgent
  • using outlook tools to delay sending the email until a more appropriate time, if out of hours
  • setting a timeframe for the work to be completed or a response to the email

While it’s understood that one of the skills junior staff and trainees in particular are learning is how to manage their workload and the expectations of others, with remote working and more use of technology, boundaries can become blurred.

These working practices could reduce the pressure junior staff and trainees feel to work unsociable hours or to be available at all hours to respond to emails.

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

As such, it’s important to 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

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).

This requires more forethought when working remotely – to add them to the necessary invites – but is an important part of their development.

Junior staff should be encouraged to seek these opportunities as part of taking responsibility for their career development.

Supervisors should also consider which opportunities are best offered in-person as these are important learning opportunities. For instance:

  • including junior staff in taking instructions
  • negotiations and court work where possible

It would be a useful learning experience, for example, to pair a junior staff member with a partner in meetings, and ask them to prepare for and attend negotiations as well as 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.

Video calls provide a good opportunity to optimise real-time interactions when working remotely, which is key to any working culture and should be woven into hybrid working where possible.

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.

New starters 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 has been a shift towards greater consideration of employees’ wellbeing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressures and stresses this 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 may be harder to know how people are managing without the close contact that you'd experience being in an office together every day.

Much will depend on the:

  • support networks within different firms and organisations
  • supervisor/supervisee relationship
  • wider interactions with other members of staff

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 regularly check in with staff in a confidential and secure environment.

One way to do this may be to make time 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. This could be done through:

  • regular team meetings, some of which are in-person
  • less formal events, or
  • social opportunities

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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