Rob Marrs is Head of Education at the Law Society and has recently coordinated several roundtables on remote supervision of trainees to understand more about how employers are adapting to non-traditional working practices.

In recent months, large swathes of the legal profession have begun to regularly work from home for what might be the first time. Trainees are one of the groups we know we all need to keep a close eye on, to ensure you are still getting a high-quality level of training and supervision and you are not losing out through a lack of face to face engagement.

Supervisors and training managers have a primary role in making this work, which is why we have recently published a page about remote supervision on our website and will continue to update this with best practice as we learn more. However, as a trainee you also have a key role in holding up your side of the working relationship.

1. Discuss with your supervisor a schedule of communication

In the supervisor advice we suggest a mix of the following:

  • A quick daily call at the start of the day (5-10 minutes) to check in that the trainee has the right level of work, knows what they are doing, when it needs to be delivered, who will be reviewing it, and is an opportunity to ask questions.
  • At least one slightly longer call per week to brief/debrief on work or to explain more complex matters.
  • Weekly wrap-up feedback sessions: what went well, what went badly etc. Make sure the feedback is fair – trainees don’t want sugar-coated advice.
  • For larger organisations, team catch-ups at least weekly.

Work out a pattern that works for you both and be willing to adapt as time develops – sometimes you’ll need more time set aside, sometimes less.

2. Know who to ask

In ordinary circumstances this will be your supervising solicitor but make sure you know (if the size of organisation allows) who to ask for assistance if your supervisor is off (ill, on leave, in meetings etc)

3. Purposefully ask to be included…. by offering help

It is easy for supervising solicitors to get caught up with the day job/trying to keep a number of plates spinning and forget to check in with trainees. If that happens offer to help your supervising solicitor – by taking notes at meetings, phone calls, hearings etc. Purposefully ask to be included. Trainees learn a lot from learning by osmosis. We’ve advised supervising solicitors to do their best to build that into a remote setting and this can be aided by trainees seeking opportunities.

4. Don’t be afraid to seek clarification and be clear yourself

When you are given instructions make absolutely clear that you understand precisely what is being asked of you: what exactly the solicitor wants you to do, when for, who you will send it to, how much time they expect you to spend on it, is it prioritised over other tasks etc.

Working remotely can increase the chance of misunderstandings or something being unclear. Don’t be shy about saying if something is unclear. It is always better to get clarification at the beginning of a task rather than halfway through. Questions and mistakes are part of work – they only become a problem if you make the same mistakes or ask the same questions.

When you provide work to your supervising solicitor, be careful to set out in the covering email where you had any problems, where you struggled, what might be wrong. This will allow them to focus on those areas and it is far better than them finding out potential issues there than further down the line. If you treat your supervising solicitor as your client then you won’t go too far wrong.

5. Make sure you are getting the right feedback and supervision

With everyone working hard and learning new ways of working sometimes feedback can be missed. Make sure to ask for feedback from your supervisor. Don’t accept everything being good - even those trainees who are doing brilliantly will have some areas to improve! Seek feedback about things you could do better.

6. If you need support ask for it but be realistic

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need to do the job properly. If you are struggling with WiFi at home or don’t have the right kit do speak to your supervisor but be realistic about what your employer can feasibly spend. A slightly difficult call is better than muddling through harming your wellbeing and your productivity/efficiency.

7. Remember you are learning together… and you may be well-placed to help

The response to Covid-19 has changed many aspects of legal life. Trainees are not re-learning something having practised a certain way for many years but rather learning something for the first time. Some trainees will be digital natives and be able to assist their organisations adapt. For instance, most organisations will be utilising numerous different videoconferencing systems (Bluejeans, Zoom, Skype, Teams, WebEx etc). It may be that you have more experience of these than some of those supervising you.

8. Structured interaction and networking

In organisations with more than one trainee try to build structured interaction with each other (and with NQs) – virtual coffees, catch-ups etc. Working from home and social distancing measures have meant far fewer networking and CPD events. Making connections and developing a network is an important part of the traineeship as you make your way in the profession. Think about attending virtual and online events – indeed, attending events is probably far easier virtually. Lots of organisations are offering free or cheap events. Consider getting involved with the Law Society of Scotland, new lawyers’ groups (SYLA, TANQ, Young Mediators), and your local faculty.

9. Be aware of others' situations

Remember that whilst the supervision of trainees is an extremely important part of a solicitor’s role they will have many other pressures: running a business, serving clients, bringing in new clients all in an extremely challenging economic environment as well as home-lives (and potentially home-schooling).  

10. Wellbeing

Remember to look after your wellbeing. It is easy when working from home to sit all day and not take breaks. Take breaks, don’t be afraid to use old school technology rather than endless videoconferencing (the phone works very well!). If you feel comfortable, try and be open with your supervisor about how things are going, to give them the best opportunity to support you. A good starting point for wellbeing is our own resources, Lawscot Wellbeing.