Rob Marrs, our Head of Education, offers his top tips and advice on how training supervisors can support a trainee who is struggling, prevent the situation from deteriorating (or even happening in the first place) and help them on their way to qualification.
In my last blog, I spoke about the termination of training contracts. This time, I thought I’d focus on how we can all collectively avoid traineeships ever getting to that point! Prevention is better than cure after all.
We do get calls from training managers about trainees who aren’t quite performing at the level they need to. These have become a bit more complex during the pandemic for a few reasons, foremost being: extended furlough has meant assessments of competence and progress towards the PEAT 2 Outcomes are trickier; and the challenges of moving to remote working have meant that trainees are potentially not getting the same level of experience in certain areas (most obviously advocacy). They may also not be getting the same amount of partner/supervisor time as previous trainees.
If you think a trainee is underperforming, I think there are a few questions to ask yourself first.
- Are you (and any other supervisors) making your expectations clear? Does the trainee understand what you want them to do, by when, to what standard, and how much time you expect them to take to do it? And following from the point above, do they know that they aren't where you want them to be against particular Outcomes?
- Are you giving candid feedback that is tied to both the work they are undertaking and the PEAT 2 Outcomes? A frequent issue that we see is that supervisors do not give open, fair feedback when a trainee isn’t quite performing as the supervisor wishes. This only leads to problems later on.
- Can you articulate precisely how – and against which PEAT 2 Outcomes – they are underperforming?
If the answer to some of these questions is "Yes", then you likely do need to take some further steps to help them meet a particular PEAT 2 Outcome. If the answers are mostly "No", then it may be more of an issue of you changing how you supervise.
Imagine a trainee is struggling against a particular outcome e.g. rudimentary errors have crept in when they have researched something for you and this has led to you spending more time than you'd expect double-checking their work and correcting it substantially. There is no point letting it slide nor is there any good waiting until the next PQPR (unless it is a few days away). Raise the issue at the time candidly, fairly, and constructively and then give the trainee the opportunity to practise the skill you have identified they are falling down against in a supported way.
Don’t shy away from it or shield them from the task – they won’t improve. We’ve dealt a few times with trainers who have chosen not to raise competence issues, because they thought it would knock the confidence of the trainee. That rarely ends well.
If the issue is more than a one-off, but rather consistent and, potentially, across a number of outcomes, then the following pattern may be useful:
(a) Briefing: Introduce or reinforce briefings when allocating work. When you do so, ask the trainee to explain what you want, when you want it and to what standard. Don’t just ask if they understand, as they’ll likely say "Yes". The act of explaining should make it clear if they do understand or not. You can reinforce this further by a follow-up email.
(b) Highlight: Ask trainees to set out in covering emails where they had problems/anything they think might be wrong. This can be annoying admittedly, but it helps in two ways: (i) it makes the trainee reflect on their own work before giving it to you and (ii) highlights issues for you to focus on. If what they’ve done is quality work, but they’ve highlighted things they found difficult that is useful for development also.
(c) Debriefing: Introduce or reinforce debriefs after a (difficult) task or in an area they are struggling. A quick meeting after the task asking them about it may make all the difference: "What did you think went well? What do you think didn’t go so well? How would you do things differently next time? What did you find difficult? Why did you do that a certain way?" Really listening to their answers will help enormously.
(d) Praise! I don’t think there has been a situation where a trainee is struggling across all of the Outcomes. Usually, it is one particular area or related areas: taking too much time to research matters, sloppy writing and drafting, making simple mistakes more than once, forgetting things they’ve been told, shying away from raising issues (or doing so by email rather than by phone or in person). Remembering to praise a trainee may seem basic, but it is important and can help ensure that you avoid the 'Halo and Horns' effect where someone who is falling down is only ever seen to do so.
Hopefully that simple approach will help things get back on an even keel. Remember too to record progress (slow or fast) at PQPRs. These are important milestones. They give both the supervisor and the trainee the opportunity to reflect on development deeply and in a structured way, to look back over the three months previous, and anything that has happened within that time.
Supervisors should prepare for these by looking at the last review (what did you identify as a development need? Why? How have the progressed?), what work has been undertaken well or less well, where have the tricky issues been and are these being dealt with adequately or not.
You should bring in evidence from informal reviews and catch-ups and plan the next three months: what should be their focus, where do they need more experience etc.
The form is important, but what is far more important is that you both reflect meaningfully on progress over the last three months towards the PEAT 2 Outcomes and think about what needs additional focus over the next three months. The PQPR gives the opportunity to get feedback on those first three questions at the start of this blog: are you making yourself clear? Are you giving good feedback? Does the trainee know how well (or not) things are going?
Finally, the PQPR may give the opportunity – if a trainee is struggling – to see if there is something else that is undermining progress. Is the balance of remote/in-office right? Are they concerned about workload? Are there health issues that you don’t know about? Do they actually have the technology to do the job? Is there something in their personal life that you don’t know about?
Most trainees do extremely well over the course of the two years and become excellent practitioners. A few do hit the odd pothole on the route to qualification. The clue is in the name: trainee. They are learning and training to be a solicitor. Mistakes happen. Sometimes things are hard and take time to get better at. The supervisor’s job is to help them become a solicitor. Being candid, being supportive, and being reflective are the best ways forward.