Keeping an eye out
Tracey Calvert considers the role of effective workplace supervision in fostering accountability and minimising risk
Supervision is not the most exciting of topics, either for those performing supervisory roles or for those being supervised. Yet it is crucial to the wellbeing, even survival, of the law firm. Too often it is dumbed down and equated to file auditing. Too often it is a function which is not viewed as essential but something which is done only if there is time after the more conventional lawyering tasks are completed.
This attitude creates risks which can establish themselves in a poor control environment, with shoddy work going unnoticed, colleagues left floundering, client issues missed, and compliance and ethical duties left to chance. This is dangerous. Quite simply, effective supervision is the quickest way to keep in control and keep informed about colleagues, clients, compliance, and all the other issues for which the modern law firm must be accountable.
Some thoughts about supervision:
Supervisory functions extend to so much more than file audit;
Supervisors are often ‘stuck in the middle’ and need support themselves;
A successful supervisor must display many characteristics and skill sets;
Being supervised should be a supportive experience; and
No one is too experienced or too senior not to be supervised.
Supervision supports principle 8 of the Solicitors Regulation Authority Handbook (‘you must run your business or carry out your role in the business effectively and in accordance with proper governance and sound financial and risk management principles’) and, of course, is very clearly stated in chapter 7 of the SRA Code of Conduct 2011, which deals with the compliance and ethical requirements relating to the management of your business. However, lack of appropriate supervision is, unfortunately, too often apparent in the disciplinary stories we read about.
Too many recently reported cases raise questions about lack of supervision. Take the shocking case of a trainee solicitor published last year. His failings were many: he was found to have misled clients about their matters, not informed them about offers to settle, failed to attend court hearings so that matters were struck out, failed to comply with court orders and directions, misled the court, and deleted documents from the case management system.
The consequences for the individual were life-changing, or at least career-limiting, in that he was served with an order stating that it was undesirable for him to be involved in a legal practice without first seeking permission from the SRA. Could this have been avoided by adequate supervision?
Managers and compliance officers should take steps to ensure that the risks attributable to poor supervision are addressed in their compliance plans, and that supervision of colleagues is adequate and effective. Such steps should be used to demonstrate oversight of the quality and soundness of the work which is undertaken on behalf of clients of the firm, and ensure that ethical and regulatory compliance issues are identified and dealt with in a timely manner.
Type of supervision
Of course, what supervision looks like is very much a matter of judgement and will reflect many different things, such as the type of business, the way in which it delivers services, the type and experience of colleagues in the firm, and the complexity of their roles. It should generate feedback both for the individual being supervised and for those in managerial and risk and compliance roles. Does someone need specific training? Is a business requirement not suitable or in need of modification? How will issues be addressed and remedied? Are trainees and more junior colleagues being appropriately supported in their roles? What happens with more experienced colleagues?
This also triggers the need to consider the support which the supervisors themselves should be able to expect from the firm. If they are to ‘carry out their role in the business effectively’ (or, in other words, achieve principle 8), what skills do they need to acquire? The role requires far more than simply having experience of a subject area and extends into skills connected with effective coaching and communication qualities. Also, do supervisors need training in the compliance culture which the managers and compliance officers are instilling in the business, and do they need to have clear agreement about the resources, including time, which are available to them to fulfil these roles?
Appropriate supervisory methods will feed into and encourage many positive behaviours in the workplace. These include monitoring and improving client care values, addressing the competencies which are expected of solicitors when delivering a proper standard of service, developing appropriate training regimes, and fostering the all-important virtues of openness and accountability.
Tracey Calvert is director of Oakalls Consultancy Ltd