Supervise for success

As part of our series of articles for small firms, Paul Bennett, looks at the challenges of staff supervision and the benefits of getting it right, and offers some practical tips for effective supervision.

People are all different: some are difficult, others need nurturing; some need clear guidance, others only occasional support. What works for one person will rarely work for another.

Supervision is a key regulatory requirement under the SRA Code of Conduct 2011, particularly chapters 7 and 8 on management of the business and supervision. All supervisors should be familiar with this, or may risk talking to me, or someone like me: a solicitor who defends regulatory investigations.

However, as solicitors, we often find ourselves receiving little training on supervision. We build our careers on the basis of our legal expertise; when we get promoted to supervise others, we receive less training on the required technical and soft skills than on the legal aspects. So how can we get it right, and if we do, how can it benefit the firm?

Why is supervision important for law firms?

I’ll use just one example here to show how effective supervision can benefit both the firm and its clients: the role of the supervisor in deciding whether a particular client or client matter should be taken on. All law firms are about meeting the needs of clients most effectively, through:

  • having the capacity to undertake the work; and
  • focusing the resources of the firm (solicitors, paralegals, support staff, library, and expertise) on providing the best available solution.

That leaves us sometimes faced with a dilemma about whether to take on a particular client or client matter. For instance:

  • An established client wants legal work done outside of the firm’s usual areas of expertise. Should the firm take it on?
  • A large fee is available for a piece of work, but the profitability is difficult to assess at the outset of the matter. Is it worth the risk?
  • A junior solicitor wants to take on a complex job for a contact. Do you let them?

All such decisions should be taken by a supervisor. There are, of course, no right or wrong answers (although you should only take on work you (and your firm) can actually fulfil), but if each dilemma is addressed well by a supervisor, the firm will only take on work that it can do effectively, for a fair fee, and that is profitable for the firm. That will protect the firm, its reputation, and the staff supervised, by ensuring the client’s matter is right for the firm (and hence the client).

A law firm’s people are its profit source, so if the firm can get its supervision right, it can ensure decisions as to taking on work are made well, thereby increasing its profits.

How can supervisors delegate effectively?

For many supervisors, the challenge is that they want work done their way. But we all know that there can be many solutions to a client’s legal issue. And if we always supervise others into dealing with matters ‘my way’, it creates a culture of mistrust, undermines confidence and causes a fear of mistakes, staff do not develop as you would wish, and junior staff are denied the chance to gain experience.

Each time you delegate a job or supervise staff, ask yourself: am I seeking ‘my way’ because it’s necessary, or am I undermining those I supervise?

How can I develop my supervision skills?

Like any skill – advocacy, for example – supervision can be developed. But where do you start? To simplify things for myself, I developed a straightforward approach to giving feedback.

Before each discussion, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How can I ensure my colleague trusts me and can communicate with me?
  • Can I make myself available to offer further guidance?
  • How does my supervision benefit the business? Does it add value for clients? Does it add value for colleagues?

During the discussion, use positive and constructive feedback, to motivate staff by ensuring they benefit from contact with you. Start and end with a positive, sandwiching the critical points or mistakes to address in between, so your staff can see you are fair; this will also lead to them becoming less defensive. Tackle any mistakes or issues constructively – explain what is wrong and why, so lessons can be learned. These steps are required as part of compliance with chapter 7 of the SRA Code of Conduct 2011.

Then invite feedback from them, to build trust and help you develop as a supervisor. Your staff may have a valid view different to your own. Take the opportunity for self-reflection: did you give clear guidance on the point delegated? What would you do differently, and why? At the end of each session, ask yourself: have I ensured they have benefited from my contact and input?

Underpinning this whole process is trust and communication. Both are key to successful relationships, and building them is an ongoing process, but if you get it right, they aid delegation and management of your time.