Supervision: carrot, stick or a bit of both?

Tuesday 4th February 2020

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What springs to mind when you think about supervision as a junior lawyer? Is it a supervisor who took time to explain the work required, explore errors and misunderstandings and constructively identify points for improvement? Or is it a supervisor who thrust a liberally red-marked document at you and told you to hurry up and send it back with corrections made?

It’s not hard to work out which approach is most likely to lead to effective and long-lasting skill and knowledge development or to build professional competence, but it takes time and willingness to do this.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has upped the ante, though, in its new Code of Conduct which outlines the expectations and accountabilities of individual solicitors. This places specific responsibilities on those who supervise: that they “remain accountable for the work carried out through them” and that they “effectively supervise work being done for clients”. Going further, supervisors and managers must “ensure that the individuals [they] manage are competent to carry out their role, and keep their professional knowledge and skills, as well as understanding of their legal, ethical and regulatory obligations, up to date.”

That’s a whole lot more than just marking up drafting errors in a letter.

So, what does this mean in practice?

First, ‘effective supervision’ is not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach, because every junior lawyer will have different strengths, weaknesses and blindspots. Risk-profiling might sound extreme but it will highlight development needs and generate evidence of the firm’s approach to effective supervision. Of course, supervisors then need to put this information to use, which will require more detailed discussions about work and performance.

Second, it creates an opportunity. Why write off time ‘wasted’ on, for example, poor initial drafting of a client letter when it could be coded as training time? Working out which lawyers are routinely spending time helping juniors get it right and coding time accordingly can help you demonstrate to the regulator that you are investing time (and therefore money) in training. Training isn’t just courses these days.

You may note that these points refer to evidence, which if you’ve spent much time with your head in the SRA’s Standards and Regulations will feel extremely familiar. In this era of ‘simplified’ regulation, we don’t have rules but instead run the gauntlet of deciding ‘what’s right for me/my firm’. The SRA kindly says it won’t second-guess solicitors’ and firms’ decision-making, but it will expect you to justify and explain your decisions and actions – ‘show your working’, as we were told at school.

Satisfying the regulator

This article was inspired by the recent ARK Group ‘Risk and Compliance for Law Firms’ conference, and in particular a presentation by Jane Jarman, reader in professional legal education at Nottingham Law School. The conference started with reiteration by the SRA and the Law Society that they spend a lot of time engaging with the profession, that their doors are always open, etc. etc. but it was Jane’s session that really gave food for thought on how law firms can make regulatory requirements both achievable and a force for good.

She proposed using the firm’s risk register as a learning vehicle, which sounds like an excellent way to tick many regulatory boxes. First of all, it means you have a risk register – which as the SRA has identified from its recent anti-money laundering health-check is far from a given, second, it means you are regularly looking at it, and third, it means you are tailoring your firm’s training according to its risk profile.

Of course, professional competence is about far more than mitigating risk, but this does create a structure for one aspect of the firm’s competence programme, and it links back to the concept of risk-profiling individuals. As Jane said at the conference, “juniors need permission to not know” and with that goes the need for approachable, supportive supervisors.

Where do you start?

  • A good place to start will be to ponder the answers to questions posed by Pearl Moses of the Law Society at the conference:
  • Given that there is no SRA definition of supervision or management, what do you mean when you use these terms internally?
  • Do you have systems in place to support supervisors and managers?
  • What competence is required to fulfil management/supervisory roles?
  • Can you demonstrate effective supervision?
  • What does effective supervision look like?

Don’t forget to show your working!

Thanks to the team at ARK Group for allowing us to attend this excellent annual event.

Want to learn more about effective supervision and hone the necessary skills? Find out more at our Supervision: Essential Skills for Lawyers course.

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