Advice corner: The trainee I'm supposed to be mentoring is tryng to run things her own way. How should I tackle this?

Dear Ash,

I am a solicitor of a few years’ standing and have recently been asked by my line manager to mentor the trainee solicitor in our department. The trainee is bright and enthusiastic but is a little too enthusiastic. When I have given her tasks to complete she goes further than required and sets out how things could be improved on particular files and how the cases could be handled better. I feel she is running away with her ideas and as a result she is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. When I try to speak to her about matters she seems to talk over me and seems to be able to talk her way out of things by emphasising she is just trying to help. I realise she is ambitious and she does seem favoured by the managers; however I need to be able to rein her in without looking as if I have problems managing people. Any suggestions?

ASH replies:

One definition of management can be traced back to the Latin “manu agere”, meaning to lead by the hand. This is interesting because it emphasises the need for one person to effectively take the lead and I think that this is essentially what is missing in your business relationship with your trainee.

Effective management does not necessarily equate to a dictatorial style; however you do need to lead with a firm approach and to make boundaries clear. Being too laid back as a manager can be just as detrimental to the effectiveness of a team as being too aggressive. Your line manager will expect you to define boundaries for the trainee and the fact that they have given you this responsibility should emphasise that they do trust you to fulfil the management role.

I would suggest you set out some basic guidelines in the form of an email to the trainee and then arrange a meeting with the trainee to discuss this. Do emphasise that you appreciate the work she has done, but make clear that you require to feedback to your manager about her performance and so it is imperative that she undertake the tasks provided to the level required by you. Perhaps also advise that by her going beyond her remit she is effectively preventing you from giving her other more interesting tasks and this is in itself not allowing her to gain the best from her traineeship.

You also need to emphasise the factors you will be taking into account when assessing her and explain that you will not solely be relying upon her ability to take initiative where appropriate but will also be measuring her ability to work within a team and to take instructions. This should perhaps make her think more about her actions within the team.

Do take some comfort from the fact that it is a well recognised truism that management is far from an easy path to tread. Machiavelli recognised the difficulties of managing people even back in the 16th century when he stated: “it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things”.

  • “Ash” is a solicitor who is willing to answer work-related queries from solicitors and trainees, which can be put to her via the editor:, or mail to Studio 2001, Mile End, Paisley PA1 1JS. Confidence will be respected and any advice published will be anonymised.
  • Please note that letters to Ash are not received at the Law Society of Scotland. The Society offers a support service for trainees through its Registrar’s Department. For one-to-one advice contact Katie Meanley, Manager in the Registrar’s Department on 0131 476 8105/8200, or . 
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