Supervision skills for family law solicitors

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This article was originally published in two parts in the Resolution Review, 2011 as the summary of the Resolution training seminar I led in June that year.

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Supervision skills for family law solicitors

  1. 1. 33 High Street, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambs CB25 0HP Talk: 01223 813828 or 07717 875597 info@ourpsl.co.uk- www.ourpsl.co.uk Tweet: @SuzyOurPSL Knowledge, understood. Best Practice for Supervising Trainees and Junior Solicitors by Suzy Ashworth, Our PSL Ltd*This article was originally published in two parts in the September and October 2011 editions of theResolution Review*****IntroductionThe Resolution Skills Committee recently kindly asked me to prepare and present a short course onsupervising trainees and junior solicitors, which took place in London at the end of June 2011. Thisarticle sets out some of the principles we discussed at the session and aims to provoke thoughtabout what Resolution members are and should be doing to encourage, nurture and get the best outof those entering our profession.Regulatory FrameworkFirst, a short reminder of the regulatory framework in which solicitors supervise junior colleagues.This consists primarily of Rule 5 of the Solicitors’ Code of Conduct 2007 and the Law Society’saccompanying Supervision Practice Note of 10 March 2010 (www.lawsociety.org.uk). The SRA’srequirements for Training Trainee Solicitors are accompanied by Guidelines on Supervising Trainees(www.sra.org.uk). These are helpful documents, and essential reading both for supervisors and forjunior lawyers as they set out the expectations and responsibilities of the wider profession.Resolution itself has the Code In Practice course which all members are expected to undertake intheir first year of membership; but nothing else. Is there any appetite, I wonder, for translating thegeneral principles on the supervision of junior solicitors into our specific family law framework, tobetter set out our own expectations and responsibilities?Time ManagementIt seems that family lawyers are sometimes reluctant to take on the supervision of trainees or juniorfee-earners because of time pressures. However, time management skills can benefit most of usand are arguably a cornerstone of what we should be teaching our new lawyers. Carefullyprioritising and blocking time for different types of task, setting firm boundaries and keeping carefultrack of outstanding and delegated tasks really can seem to create hours in a week. The sooner thateveryone learns an effective system for time management, the more productive they can become.The supervisor leading by example will reap significant rewards. Consider this: what steals yourtime? What time-management skills do you have to pass on to those starting out, or is this an areain which you feel you could improve?Effective Delegation Our PSL Ltd is a company incorporated in England & Wales with company number 7378116. Registered office: Tyburn House, Station Road, Oakington, Cambridgeshire CB24 3AH. VAT Registered with number 101 1040 11.
  2. 2. Delegation skills are an obvious requirement for those bringing on junior staff. Developing effectiveways of communicating and ensuring that the channels remain open for clarification and progressreports will ensure that mistakes and lost time are kept to a minimum. I advocate adopting theSMARTER model for family law delegation: that delegated tasks should always be Specific,Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timetabled, Ethical and Relevant. There is a school of thoughtthat says that effective delegation must be in written form to limit the chance of misunderstanding,but this is not always realistic. As ever, much depends on the progress of the junior solicitors andthe nature of the task. Do you, or could you, delegate SMARTER?What to teach junior staffAt the training session, the question people most wanted answered seemed to be: what should weteach them? In a broad church like Resolution, where the ambit of what we do extends from legalaid specialists, to public children law, to billion-pound financial applications and everything inbetween, it is clearly impossible to dictate a one-size-fits-all core training programme. However,should Resolution lead the way by establishing guidelines for basic learning in each area, or is thissomething for each individual firm to think about? As a starting point, in any practice, it should bepossible to put together a series of bundles of materials for use by trainees or juniors to enable themquickly to get a handle on the fundamentals of your work. Producing a short narrative explanationof the area, together with blank and specimen completed forms and references to texts and onlineresources giving more detail only needs to be done once (although reviewed regularly) and will saveeveryone’s time. Allocating a couple of hours in the first week to take your junior colleague throughthe way the team works, the way you work, the basics of the law and procedure and how to usetheir dictation machine will mean that they can hit the ground running.Here I have concentrated on the framework for supervision, time management, delegation, and corelearning, but there is more to say about supervising effectively: how to teach the business skills andsoft skills needed to be a generation 2.0 family lawyer, the place of ADR, mentoring, fostering trust,and the art of giving feedback to name a few. This article ends here, but the debate is justbeginning.*************Part IIIn the last issue of the Review, in my article "supervising trainees and junior solicitors", I wrote aboutdeveloping junior solicitors legal and business skills in family law practice. I concentratedparticularly on time management, effective delegation and core learning. In this article, I focus moreon how to foster business development skills, soft skills and developing the relationship of trustbetween supervisor and junior solicitor.Developing businessWe all know that as a family lawyer these days, it is not enough simply to be good at your job. Youneed to know how to market yourself and your firm effectively, and this job can no longer be left tosenior team members. Indeed it should not be: solicitors entering the profession now tend to havein-depth knowledge of a wide range of marketing techniques involving social media, mobile Our PSL Ltd is a company incorporated in England & Wales with company number 7378116. Registered office: Tyburn House, Station Road, Oakington, Cambridgeshire CB24 3AH. VAT Registered with number 101 1040 11.
  3. 3. communications, and peer-group networks which complement the traditional marketing techniquesused by more mature practitioners.Although there are excellent seminars available on business development techniques, it is not atheoretical enterprise. You get better at it by doing it, and by watching people who are already goodat it. Encouraging junior solicitors to attend the seminars, lunches or events you go to will give themthe confidence to find their own way with their own contacts. Giving junior solicitors the opportunityto feed in their own ideas about the business development of your team and its forward progress isexcellent personal development for them and will pay dividends for the practice. Anecdotal evidencesuggests that connections made in the early years of practice are more durable than those madelater, so encouraging them to firm up and capitalise on their contacts will expand your team’snetwork of influence.The main burden on the supervisor in this area is needing to ensure that your junior solicitors are“on message” about all areas of your practice before they enter the business development fray. Youmay find that there is a particular lacuna in their understanding about alternative dispute resolution,as detailed training in mediation and in collaborative law is still restricted to those of higherqualification levels. If your junior solicitors are to be ambassadors for your firm, it is essential for youthat they should present your family law practice as you would wish it to be seen.Soft skillsTo progress and excel as a family lawyer it is essential to have “soft skills” that enable you to connectwith a client appropriately and inspire confidence. Young solicitors can often lack confidence in thisarea. I am a firm believer that an introductory-level counselling skills course is a good grounding forall junior family lawyers in how to listen sensitively, and ensure that you maintain professionalboundaries. Junior solicitors working in family law are more likely to become overwhelmed withclients’ difficulties and to find themselves less able to draw a clean line between work and the rest oftheir lives. Facilitating self-awareness and knowledge of boundaries is an essential part ofsupervising junior solicitors to give them the tools to avoid burn-out. Junior solicitors should haveaccess to details of local trusted counsellors (and other professionals) to whom they might referclients who are in need of personal support.Fostering trustA trusting relationship between supervisor and junior solicitor will enable them to feel they cancome to you with issues that may be hampering their development or, indeed, negligence risks. Anattitude of openness that gives them the confidence to speak up if they have made a mistake willensure that these (almost inevitable) early errors do not become concealed, snowball and becomemore costly.Effective supervisors understand that there is more to listening than taking in what someone says.Making time and listening actively with full attention, noting not only what is said but also bodylanguage and tone of voice can give an insight into the full picture which you might otherwise miss.Communication improves when each person is attuned to the other’s manner of speech and type oflanguage, as messages can be phrased in a way that they are better able to be heard. This is Our PSL Ltd is a company incorporated in England & Wales with company number 7378116. Registered office: Tyburn House, Station Road, Oakington, Cambridgeshire CB24 3AH. VAT Registered with number 101 1040 11.
  4. 4. essential for tasks such as giving constructive feedback and performance reviews, promoting themore constructive exchange of information and views between you.You may also wish to consider introducing a mentoring system to run alongside the supervision ofjunior assistants. A system that formally pairs up members of staff at similar qualification levels toprovide a sounding board, support, or a different point of view for working issues may beparticularly useful, for example, with young solicitors seeking to balance working life with youngfamilies.ConclusionIt can feel like a big ask to become a supervisor for junior solicitors. However, working with youngpeople in our profession can be an immensely rewarding task and can produce insights andrevelations about family law and practical ways of working that can revolutionise the day-to-day inthe office. There is an argument that we as a profession have neglected our juniors too long, and it istime to address the "sink or swim" culture that remains in many places from the old days of thearticled clerk. Trainees and junior solicitors have so much to offer us and it is our responsibility toensure that they have the tools for lengthy and happy practice in family law, whatever the future ofthe profession holds.*********If you would like to know more about Our PSL’s training and development work, please contact Suzyon 01223 813828 or 07717 875597.© Our PSL Ltd 2012 Our PSL Ltd is a company incorporated in England & Wales with company number 7378116. Registered office: Tyburn House, Station Road, Oakington, Cambridgeshire CB24 3AH. VAT Registered with number 101 1040 11.

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