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Effective supervision embeds ethical behaviour and sets the standard and culture of a law firm.

While an important aspect of supervision is monitoring and maintaining the quality of work undertaken for clients, it has a much wider role in law firms and should also be viewed as an opportunity to provide on-the-job training, development and support of legal practitioners at all levels.

Effective supervision not only imparts technical knowledge but also passes on good practice management and work habits, communication skills, embeds ethical behaviour and sets the standard and culture of a law firm. If done well it creates a supportive environment to improve the performance, engagement, wellbeing and retention of staff.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for effective supervision, and what is required will vary in each case depending on the size of the law firm, the type of work and experience and competence of the supervisee. A key ingredient is that the supervisor properly understands the importance of their role and genuinely cares about, and is committed to, the development and support of their firm’s people.

There are many important foundational skills and practices that good supervision helps develop.

Legal practitioners have professional responsibility and ethical obligations under general law, legislation and professional rules, and are trained in ethical theory, but ethical behaviours, including what to do and how to handle an ethical dilemma are often learned and developed in real practice situations. It is not just staying within the technical rules and law but also identifying and taking action to avoid potential problems and ’doing the right thing‘. This is often best learned from the guidance and direction of supervisors and colleagues as new and different situations arise. Supervisors and leaders of the firm must set, live and pass on the ethical standards that everyone lives by.

Supervisors typically have a wealth of knowledge that they can pass on to less experienced practitioners. This is not just technical knowledge of the law, but imparting strategy and lessons learned over many years of practice to develop and mentor practitioners to do good quality work.

Practitioners can learn enormously from observing a more senior lawyer interact with clients and other parties and should be given this opportunity. Good supervision should also include supervisors sitting in with supervisees in client meetings and calls and providing feedback. Analyse whether the supervisee is obtaining and testing the client’s instructions with active listening and asking probing questions, effectively communicating advice, and checking and adequately testing whether the client understands the advice. Constructive feedback and support is important to help hone these essential communication skills.

A critical aspect of running a file is the discipline of recording in writing all communications with clients (and other parties) and the instructions received. Supervisors should teach practitioners to always, without exception, make a contemporaneous file note of the client’s circumstances, advice given and instructions received. The file note should also record the date, start and end time, how the meeting or interview was conducted (e.g. in person or online) and who was present. Supervisors should check files and follow up to ensure this has been done and help instil this basic but critical practice management habit.

A good supervisor should also stress the importance of always confirming legal advice and key risks to clients in writing and require it to be done until it becomes the norm — a habit that the practitioner always does. Like file notes, it is a crucial step which is often overlooked.

Another key skill practitioners must develop is how to manage difficult clients and unusual or complex work. We all have a ’too hard’ basket, and from time to time need guidance on how to action these matters before they become a problem such as a complaint or claim. Supervisors have an important role to help file handlers move forward when there is a block to doing the work. Often discussing a file with a supervisor will give the supervisee the confidence to action the matter or identify another strategy, such as briefing counsel or initiating a client conference (often with the supervisor present) to discuss the difficulties. It may be hard to identify a way forward until you talk about it with another practitioner who with fresh eyes can see a clear path forward.

Providing a structured and proactive program of supervision within the firm that includes regular discussions and meetings, feedback and proactive follow up, shows a commitment to support, train and mentor staff to be better practitioners. Not only will it improve performance and risk management within the firm, but facilitate the engagement, wellbeing and long-term retention of staff.

Experience tells us that good supervisory skills do not come naturally to all lawyers, and some will require training and support from the firm. Another way to help improve supervision practices within the firm is to identify and recognise who are good supervisors. Think about the qualities that make them a good supervisor and ask them to share their experiences, techniques and tips. At the same time, law firms should also identify supervisors who are not supervising well, give them feedback and support to help them improve or change their role away from supervision.

Supervision has a wider role in law firms than checking work quality. It involves on- the-job training, development and support of practitioners.
Regular discussions or meetings, feedback and follow-up are essential.
Done well, supervision passes on good practice management habits, communication skills, embeds ethical behaviour and improves the wellbeing and retention of staff.