The importance of high-quality supervision
Ensuring staff at all levels of your firm know what’s expected of them, and where they can turn if they’re struggling, can prevent a host of problems.
Effective supervision helps people to develop and so increases motivation. It also protects a practice from complaints, negligence and Legal Aid Agency audits. I have been working with some practices on supervision issues, using the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s statement of solicitor competence1www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/competence-statement.page
as a helpful guide to what can be expected of both supervisors and supervisees.
What, exactly, do you want?
Section C of the statement, ‘Working with other people’, contains standards that are relevant to supervisors:
C3 Establish and maintain effective and professional relations with other people, including
a. Treating others with courtesy and respect
b. Delegating tasks when appropriate to do so
c. Supervising the work of others effectively
d. Keeping colleagues informed of progress of work, including any risks or problems
e. Acknowledging and engaging with others’ expertise when appropriate
f. Being supportive of colleagues and offering advice and assistance when required
g. Being clear about expectations
h. Identifying, selecting and, where appropriate, managing external experts or consultants
Point g is really important. Often, if people are not performing well, it can be because they are not clear about what is expected. How often is someone given a file and asked to ‘sort it out’ or ‘do what needs to be done’? The result is not just wasted time for the person who cannot focus on what they need to do and why, but it will also cause delay and will probably lead to interruptions for the supervisor, who will be asked for further guidance.
The following delegation checklist could be useful:
•Does the client know the person dealing with their case?
•Have you provided specific information on: what needs to be done; why; and by when?
•Does the solicitor know that problems are to be referred back?
•Have you set out any progress or completion checks required?
•Have you set out the time to be (or not to be) expended?
•Is the solicitor aware of resources and other help available (eg similar cases, precedents)?
It is a mistake to try to fill a shortage of staff by asking someone to do something too far outside their competence. There are solicitors who avoid advocacy at all costs because they were thrown in at the deep end and were not properly supported. Contrast that with the approach explained to me by a crime partner in a London firm: when they think a trainee is ready, they will identify a suitable case, and both the trainee and supervisor will prepare it separately. That way, the supervisor knows all the issues and can provide guidance if needed, and, if the trainee’s nerve fails at the last minute, they can step in.
Seniority and sensitivity
Another issue that surfaces from time to time is: ‘How do you tackle a partner who is not performing to expectations?’ Part of the answer can be to use section A of the competence statement, ‘Ethics, professionalism and judgement’, to remind them that it is their duty as a solicitor to seek supervision and support if they need it:
A3 Work within the limits of their competence and the supervision which they need, including
a. Disclosing when work is beyond their personal capability
b. Recognising when they have made mistakes or are experiencing difficulties and taking appropriate action
c. Seeking and making effective use of feedback, guidance and support where needed
d. Knowing when to seek expert advice
Raising problems with partners is difficult. Concentrating on the agreed standards required and providing objective evidence of problems can help to depersonalise difficult feedback and make it more likely that the person receiving it will be able to change their behaviour.
Individuals are made partners for good reasons and no one wants to undermine anyone’s position; but if anything does go wrong at partner level, it can have really serious implications for the practice as a whole. A firm needs a culture where expectations are clearly set out and people normally meet them, whatever their role. This is particularly relevant when partners are supervised by non-partners, as they need to be confident that there is someone to whom they can turn who will listen and support them. Failing to create a safe environment in this respect can result in negligence actions and compensation claims. It’s a bit like a business continuity plan: you don’t want to use it, but it makes sense to have a procedure, just in case the situation arises. ■