Watching brief
.
.
.
Marc Bloomfield
Supervision is important for professional and quality standards, so getting it right is crucial.
The importance of supervision – watching and guiding what someone does or how something is done – is now almost universally accepted by legal practitioners. Supervision supports development (ongoing professional learning) and performance (standards of legal practice and expectations). It includes day-to-day support, guidance and advice, as well as supervisory file reviews of the technical quality of legal work and case management.
However, it was not always so. Not that long ago, qualification as a solicitor was regarded as enough in itself to guarantee the quality of legal advice and representation. The idea of continuing professional development was first introduced for newly qualified solicitors in 1985 and was not extended to all solicitors until 1994. It evolved into the concept of competence to practise in 2016, which signifies that everyone has training and development needs throughout their careers, as law and practice is always changing.
In legal aid work, the Legal Aid Board’s (LAB’s) Franchising Specification (forerunner of the Specialist Quality Mark) set down supervision and file review standards in the early 1990s. These were audited by LAB staff (of whom I was one) to make sure they were actually taking place. This was regarded as pretty revolutionary at the time. Looking at other solicitors’ files was just not done: it would have been regarded as intrusive and an implied criticism of a fellow professional. Pre-franchising, supervision and file review might have consisted of waiting until a fee earner went on holiday, then going through their files. If the partners weren’t happy with what they found, a P45 could be waiting on the solicitor’s return.
We now understand that supervision should involve people in shaping their work environment and provide support for personal growth. Effective supervision requires both technical legal skills and interpersonal skills of listening, communication and empathy. The benefits of effective supervision are that a practice can be confident that it is:
providing a consistent quality of legal advice and service;
developing individuals and building teams;
minimising the risk of bad advice on clients’ lives and insurance claims for negligent advice; and
complying with Legal Aid Agency (LAA) rules and guidance.
What must you do?
Lexcel v6.11Lexcel England and Wales v6.1 standard for legal practices, Law Society, March 2018. requirements are fairly flexible and are shown below (emphasis in original). You will note that when it comes to file reviews, neither numbers of files nor frequencies are specified, although you have to justify them and explain your criteria for choosing the files.
5.9 Practices must have a procedure to ensure that all personnel, both permanent and temporary, are actively supervised. Such procedures must include:
a.checks on incoming and outgoing correspondence where appropriate
b.departmental, team and office meetings and communication structures
c.reviews of matter details in order to ensure good financial controls and the appropriate allocation of workloads
d.the exercise of devolved powers in publicly funded work [sic]
e.the availability of a supervisor
f.allocation of new work and reallocation of existing work, if necessary.
[…]
5.11 Practices must have a procedure for regular, independent file reviews of either the management of the file or its substantive legal content, or both. In relation to file reviews, practices must:
a.define and explain file selection criteria
b.define and explain the number and frequency of reviews
c.retain a record of the file review on the matter file and centrally
d.ensure any corrective action, which is identified in a file review, is acted upon within 28 days and verified
e.ensure that the designated supervisor reviews and monitors the data generated by file reviews
f.conduct a review at least annually of the data generated by file reviews.
The LAA does not set any minima in either the Standard Civil Contract 2018 or the Standard Crime Contract 2017. However, if you are accredited to the Specialist Quality Mark v2.2,2Specialist Quality Mark standard, LAA, March 2017. E2.1 sets minimum numbers, frequencies and methodology, but only for crime. You must review no fewer than two files per person per month (one for supervisors). Frequency cannot be longer than quarterly. In any quarter, 50 per cent must be carried out face to face. By contrast, crime practitioners accredited to Lexcel have the flexibility afforded by that standard.
The key is to make file reviews useful and work for you as a practice, rather than seeing them as a chore.
 
1     Lexcel England and Wales v6.1 standard for legal practices, Law Society, March 2018. »
2     Specialist Quality Mark standard, LAA, March 2017. »

About the author(s)

Description: Vicky Ling - author
Vicky Ling is a consultant specialising in legal aid practice and a founder member of the Law Consultancy Network.