Keeping close: supervising and mentoring trainees remotely

Fiona du Feu
Fiona du FeuMy Compliance Colleague

How can you ensure that your trainees learn relevant skills, now that working from home has largely replaced previously office-based activities? Fiona du Feu explains how you can overcome the practical difficulties as much as you can.

a white man is on a video call with four people at a desk

Historically, trainee solicitors would learn their craft while sharing an office with, or sitting near, their supervisor. Listening in on phone calls and sitting in on client meetings was commonplace.

This learning by osmosis provided a constant, informal exchange of information, enabling the trainee to observe and learn. 

That easy communication is obviously difficult to replicate now. Can enough practical skills be learnt, and the right learning experiences provided, to ensure that trainees can still meet their required professional standards?

Here are some practical steps you can take to ensure your learning programmes are still effective for your trainees. 

Demonstrating client communication skills

With some clients, video meetings are now normal, so client management skills can still be learned.

For example, at a new corporate client meeting, you can introduce your trainee as part of the team, who will then observe, listen and take notes exactly as before. You can then delegate any appropriate follow-up work, drafting or researching. Encouraging trainees to lead on team meetings will help develop those skills.

But what if meetings over video are neither desirable or possible, such as for an elderly client in a nursing home who wishes to update their will, or a recently bereaved widow? If face-to-face meetings are possible, safe and socially distanced, some clients will need and welcome that personal contact.

This is precisely when bereavement soft skills can be demonstrated and learnt. The ability to deal with crying clients, to manage emotion and to offer empathy are learnt not from books, but by practice. Therefore, though such opportunities may be less frequent as some clients will prefer not to meet face to face, they will still arise.

You must ensure that enough client-facing opportunities are available, so that observing, developing and refining that all-important ‘bedside manner’ is still possible for trainees.

Remote meetings have posed new challenges. It is much harder to gauge someone’s state of mind via the normal indicators. It may be more difficult to spot the normal signs that your client does not understand what you are saying to them.

After the client meeting, explain those clues and reinforce with the trainee what steps were taken to ensure the client understood the issues, and what other steps might be needed.

Of course, communication is not just about the spoken word. Drafting, note-taking, reporting and letter-writing skills can still be honed by email, though check that your feedback mechanisms enable the trainee to learn from any misunderstandings or mistakes. Ideally, those drafts prepared by the trainee are then discussed in enough detail that the trainee understands the how and why. 

Self-management

Now we are all mostly working from home, it’s left up to trainees to manage their day – managing deadlines, diary, competing priorities and interruptions.

From speaking to trainees and supervisors over the last year, it’s clear to me that trainees who have begun their careers during COVID-19 exhibit exactly this self-sufficiency, perhaps because they have not been spoon-fed. Let’s keep that up.

When briefing a trainee, are you giving guidance, without ‘pampering’? Is it work that encourages their development? Is it pitched at a level that challenges, but is not outside, their current competence?

Mistakes do happen, but good supervisors foster open communication, avoiding a blame culture. Your tone of communication is key here: trainees should feel safe in reporting any mistakes. Make it clear that you expect trainees to come to you if they are stuck: asking for help is a natural part of their development. 

Emotional wellbeing

We have probably all noticed that it’s sometimes difficult to feel supported when working long hours, away from the camaraderie of the office, and essentially alone. Office blogs, quiz nights, WhatsApp groups and Zoom support groups can all help to make people feel more connected.

There are times when people’s personal lives simply have to take priority and there should be an empathetic acknowledgement of that. Proactive management seems to work well: having team meetings which focus on wellbeing, fun and encouraging positives can help to re-set our emotional health compass. Ensure that trainees are included, especially if new to the seat, and still learning the ropes.

Giving feedback – on both sides

Feedback mechanisms and clear communication have always been key issues for both supervisors and trainees. It’s even more crucial now that supervisors find effective ways to give constructive feedback.

That feedback can be formal or informal and can be anything from a one-minute question to a scheduled performance management meeting. But make sure that you speak to your trainee at a time convenient to both of you. Both parties should be respectful of the other’s private life while maintaining accessibility.

Top tips for supervisors

  • Check the trainee has fully understood what you need them to do. Ask them to summarise the task and how they plan to tackle it
  • Keep looking for every opportunity to grow your trainee into a rounded lawyer
  • Give reassurance often and praise when due
  • Check whether there are still enough opportunities for the trainee to ask questions
  • When doing the end-of-seat review, record how you adapted your supervisory techniques to the COVID-19 crisis
  • Have a clear supervision and review schedule and keep to it: your trainee depends on it
  • Have occasional pastoral meetings: are you picking up trainee distress signals?  

Top tips for trainees

  • Don’t be over-critical of yourself: isolation can skew perspectives
  • Actively listen, take notes, check any points you have worries about and satisfy yourself that you have fully understood, by reflecting back to your supervisor
  • Don’t take feedback personally. Isolation can make us feel more sensitive to criticism. Remember that feedback is the breakfast of champions and train yourself to respond positively
  • Remember that flexibility and adaptability are two key skills you are already demonstrating
  • If you find yourself with fallow time, use it productively by setting yourself learning tasks, demonstrating how you take responsibility for your own learning
  • Know when to ask for help, it’s a key skill: SRA competency A3
  • Look for opportunities to explore ethical issues – be crystal clear on what’s right and what’s wrong
  • Try not to worry about the future: your performance right now is your focus

A longer version of this article first appeared in the February 2021 edition of PS, the magazine of the Law Society’s Private Client Section.

Read our practice note on supervision

Read the SRA coronavirus education and training Q&A

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