How can you ensure that your trainees learn relevant skills, now that working from home has largely replaced previously office-based activities? Fiona du Feu explains how you can overcome the practical difficulties as much as you can
Historically, trainee solicitors would learn their craft while sharing an office with, or sitting near, their supervisor. Listening in on phone calls and sitting in on client meetings was the norm. Such learning by “osmosis” provided a constant, informal exchange of information, enabling the trainee to observe and learn from their supervisor. In many ways, it was passive learning, but still very effective.
Such easy communication is difficult to replicate now, with learner and mentor spending much less, if any, time in physical proximity. Can enough practical skills be learnt, and the right learning experiences be provided, to ensure that trainees can still meet their required professional standards?
The formal Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) training requirements remain in place, of course. Trainees must still be provided with the opportunity to develop some or all the skills set out in the SRA competence statement. In short, supervisors must ensure that trainees:
- are competent to carry out their role
- keep their professional knowledge and skills up to date
- understand their legal, ethical and regulatory obligations.
That’s a wide remit, of course, even when office life is ‘normal’. In its guidance on qualifying work experience, the SRA recognises that things will look different now: “In light of current working arrangements, you might want to consider how you offer qualifying work experience in the future. For example, this could be using digital tools, such as video calling and virtual meetings, to continue exposure to the competencies”.
So, are there practical ways to ensure learning programmes remain effective?
Demonstrating client communication skills
A key skill in SRA competency C2(b) is that of communicating with clients effectively, “providing information in a way that clients can understand, taking into account their personal circumstances and any particular vulnerability”.
Both verbal and non-verbal communication skills are normally acquired hands-on, by trainees sitting in on client meetings, listening and watching, for example. How does that look when there is no longer an expectation that clients will be seen face to face? It depends on the type of work and the level of client contact required.
With some clients – particularly the more sophisticated users of legal services – video meetings are now normal, so client management skills can still be learned. For example, at a new corporate client meeting, the trainee can be introduced as part of the team, and will then observe, listen and take notes exactly as before. Any appropriate follow-up work, drafting or researching, for instance, can then be delegated to the trainee. Encouraging trainees to lead on team meetings will help develop those skills, which will then readily transfer to client meetings.
The digital equivalent of the red pen is still necessary, since without constructive feedback there will be little active learning
In other work types, though, creating opportunities for developing client communication skills may be more of a challenge. Meetings over video may be neither desirable nor possible. Take, for example, an elderly client in a nursing home who wishes to update their will, or a recently bereaved widow. Coronavirus (COVID-19) must not rob us of our humanity: if face-to-face meetings are possible, safe and socially distanced, some clients will need and welcome that personal contact.
This is precisely when bereavement soft skills can be demonstrated and learnt. The ability to deal with crying clients, manage emotion and offer empathy is learnt not from books but by practice. Therefore, though such opportunities may be less frequent (and some clients will prefer not to meet face to face), they will still arise. Supervisors – mindful of the need to continue exposing trainees to the SRA competencies – must ensure that enough client-facing opportunities arise, so that observing, developing and refining that all-important ‘bedside manner’ is still possible.
Remote meetings have posed new challenges. It is much harder to gauge someone’s state of mind via the normal indicators: tone, posture, body language, eye contact and so on. It may be harder to spot the normal signs that your client does not understand what you are saying – a task made even more challenging if they are a new client. Supervisors could take time after the client meeting to explain those “clues”, and reinforce with the trainee what steps were taken to ensure the client understood the issues and what other steps might be needed – a follow-up call, confirmation in writing or another meeting, for example – to ensure the client understands fully.
Communication is not just about the spoken word. Drafting, note-taking, reporting and letter-writing skills can still be honed by email, though supervisors should check that their feedback mechanisms enable the trainee to learn from any misunderstandings or mistakes.
Ideally, drafts prepared by trainees should then be discussed in sufficient detail that trainees understand the ‘how’ or ‘why’. At the very least, they should be able to keep up to date by accessing tracked versions.
The digital equivalent of the red pen is still necessary, since without constructive feedback there will be little active learning. Feedback takes time, of course – so, trainees, are you valuing the investment being made in you?
Make it clear that you expect trainees to come to you if they are stuck: asking for help is a natural part of their development
Feedback mechanisms and clear communication have always been key issues for both supervisors and trainees. It’s even more crucial now that supervisors find effective ways to give constructive feedback in the absence of osmosis, so that trainees can still learn from their actions, understand their strengths and focus their efforts to improve.
Feedback can be formal (Zoom debriefs and supervision meetings) or informal, and can be anything from a one-minute question to a scheduled performance management meeting. The time-honoured way to get a sense-check on something used to be through casual “corridor discussions” with peers or sticking your head round the boss’s door.
Now, though, trainees may have fewer opportunities to quickly access their supervisor or colleagues for that bit of guidance. Though there may be agreed “open-door” sessions or booked supervision phone meetings, there may be a reluctance to intrude. If there’s no actual door, as it were, it’s difficult to judge someone’s availability (and, being realistic, even more difficult to judge the right moment), now that we can’t actually see each other across the room. Work out what works and maintain that. The relationship must be respectful: in the same way that we would not barge in on a meeting, both parties should be respectful of the other’s private life (keeping out-of-hours contact to a minimum, for example), while maintaining accessibility.
Another key skill is self-management: managing deadlines, your diary, competing priorities and interruptions. With working from home, it’s now left up to trainees to manage their day. From speaking to trainees and supervisors over the last year, it’s clear that trainees who have begun their careers during COVID-19 exhibit exactly this self-sufficiency, perhaps because they have not been ‘spoon-fed’. Let’s keep that up.
When briefing a trainee, are you giving guidance, without ‘pampering’? Does the work encourage their development? Is it pitched at a level that challenges, but is not outside, their current competence? Supervisors should not give trainees the answer, but rather let them come up with their own solution.
This brings us to how far trainees should be micro-managed. It depends on the individual. Some will, if left to their own devices, make the best of it, proactively finding solutions to problems. Those trainees thrive on being given autonomy, while others may flounder and start to lose confidence.
Mistakes do happen, but good supervisors foster open communication, avoiding a blame culture. That is still the case, even post-COVID-19. The tone of communication is key here: trainees should feel safe in reporting any mistakes. So, keep having those regular diarised meetings (over phone, Zoom or Teams), have a virtual “open-door” policy for the equivalent of walk-in chats, and encourage trainees to think for themselves – but to ask for help if they need it. Even then, it is not always possible for a supervisor to know when specific assistance is needed by the trainee. Make it clear that you expect trainees to come to you if they are stuck: asking for help is a natural part of their development.
We have probably all noticed that it’s sometimes difficult to feel supported when working long hours, away from the camaraderie of the office and essentially alone. Humans are naturally sociable: this isolation can be hard to handle.
Have you become accustomed to less physical and emotional interaction and thereby unwittingly edged towards despondency? Office blogs, quiz nights, WhatsApp groups and Zoom support groups may all help to make people feel more connected. That support can help to smooth out the ups and downs of daily remote life: it’s a shared experience.
Access to health and wellbeing resources, both within a legal practice and beyond, has taken on a new importance. There are times when people’s personal lives simply have to take priority and there should be an empathetic acknowledgement of that. Proactive management seems to work well: having team meetings that focus on wellbeing, fun and encouraging positives can help to reset our emotional health “compass”. Ensure that trainees are included, especially if new to the seat and still learning the ropes: they may feel dislocated and “out of the loop”.
Checklist for supervisors
- Check the trainee has fully understood what you need them to do. Ask them to summarise the task and how they plan to tackle it.
- Keep looking for every opportunity to grow your trainee into a rounded lawyer.
- Give reassurance often and praise when due.
- Check whether there are still enough opportunities for the trainee to ask questions.
- When doing the end-of-seat review, record how you have adapted your supervisory techniques to the COVID-19 crisis.
- Have a clear supervision and review schedule, and keep to it: your trainee depends on it.
- Have occasional pastoral meetings: are you picking up trainee distress signals?
- Don’t neglect your own professional competence. Lockdown may have impacted external training, but our learning never stops.
- Have clear plans for covering your training responsibilities if you are off sick.
Checklist for trainees
- Don’t be over-critical of yourself: isolation can skew perspectives.
- Be curious. Ask questions.
- Before starting a task, get clear instructions.
- If you have questions, get them out of the way first, making the most of your supervisor’s and your own time.
- Actively listen, take notes, check any points you have worries about, and satisfy yourself that you have fully understood by reflecting points back to your supervisor.
- Respect the time your supervisor is spending to make you the best trainee you can be.
- Don’t take feedback personally. Isolation can make us feel more sensitive to criticism. Remember that feedback is the breakfast of champions and train yourself to respond positively.
- Remember that flexibility and adaptability are two key skills you are already demonstrating.
- Organise your day: time-management is a skill you learn by experiencing wasted time.
- If you find yourself with fallow time, use it productively by setting yourself learning tasks, demonstrating how you take responsibility for your own learning.
- Know when to ask for help! It’s a key skill: SRA competency A3.
- Look for opportunities to explore ethical issues – be crystal clear on what’s right and what’s wrong.
- Try not to worry about the future: your performance right now is your focus.
- Access health and wellbeing support when needed. Everyone is experiencing anxiety and loss of life-control to some extent.