Alan East, chair of our Education and Training Committee, discusses supervising trainee solicitors in these exceptional times. Firms and trainee solicitors have raised issues on how to best ensure that trainees are properly and effectively supervised during this challenging period.
Word from the SRA
The SRA has advised firms to satisfy themselves that they have appropriate and adequate measures in place to ensure they can continue to effectively supervise their trainees. How this will look for your firm may differ from other firms. The term “appropriate supervision” already provides a degree of flexibility for firms and the SRA intends to be as accommodating as possible, whilst also making sure solicitors who do qualify during this time have met the required standard.
Remote supervision can be done using email, phone calls, video conferencing, or other appropriate measures available. Depending on the nature of the work the trainee is doing, a mix of different communication methods may be suitable. Consider how you supervise your trainees in “normal” circumstances: can that be transferred to a remote set-up?
With supervision arrangements in place that your firm is comfortable with, the SRA’s position is that there is no maximum period for remote supervision. The current situation is ongoing, with no definitive end point at this time, so arrangements should be made with this in mind.
When a trainee is unable to work
There are, during this time, different reasons why a trainee may be unable to work.
If a trainee is ill with coronavirus or suspected coronavirus, this should be treated the same as any other illness that would fall under your firm’s normal procedure for sick leave. The SRA’s usual guidance applies here, and an absence of up to three months is allowable within the training period.
If someone is off on a long-term basis (over three months), the training period can be extended, particularly if the trainee is unable to meet the requirements of the Practice Skills Standards.
Another reason for being unable to work is if the trainee is furloughed. The government’s furlough scheme applies to all those employees who would otherwise be made redundant within an organisation that asks for support. As with illness, the SRA will view any absence up to three months as allowable within the training period.
The Law Society has answered a number of questions on furlough, and specifically the furlough of trainees, which are available on our Coronavirus information for members page and our Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: Guidance for law firms.
As we move through this period, the most important thing that firms and trainees can do is to communicate. Added uncertainty at this time is unhelpful, so regular, clear communications that enable solicitors and trainees to understand their roles and responsibilities is vital. This can greatly reduce stress and enable your staff to get on with the job in hand, which is essential at this time.
Clear communication can take many forms, depending on what is appropriate for the topic being communicated. We encourage regular catch-ups with a supervisor or as a team to enable everyone to understand how their work fits together and ask any questions. Information can be cascaded by email where it relates to updates on the firm or business.
Supervisors should also consider how best to manage regular communications with furloughed trainees. Whilst they cannot engage in any work, regular calls to see how they are doing can give necessary reassurance.
There is also the social side to work, which is currently on hold. Many organisations have initiated weekly social calls, so that staff can check in on each other. These are unprecedented times, and many will be working in non-ideal situations at home, so it is worth considering the mental health and wellbeing of trainees in particular, who may feel additional uncertainty about their professional future on top of the current situation.
If you are a supervisor, you should have in place a plan in case you are unable to work, whether due to illness, furlough or other considerations. It is essential that your trainees are adequately supervised and have an awareness of any alternate arrangements that may be introduced.
It is also critical to ensure that you keep good records of current arrangements, so that anyone “stepping in” can be sure of a comprehensive handover.
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 they make must align to the SRA’s overall approach to enforcement.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.