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How to be a great supervisor

As published in The Lawyer magazine (

Creating a supervisory relationship you can be proud of may take a little effort, but it is worth it. Whether you are managing trainees or newly qualifieds, here are seven tips to help.

1. Be creative

There is no one-size-fits-all, so take some time at the outset to really think about the kind of manager you would like to be.

Think back to past supervisors you have had who were amazing – what traits did you admire? Try to recall what was so awful about the bad ones (collect lots of dry cleaning?). Now is your chance to put all your wisdom to good use.

Also, use your strengths to give you an edge. If you have exceptional interpersonal skills, focus on being approachable. If legal technical skills are more your bag, impart this knowledge in an inspiring way.

2. Champion them

Ask about their aspirations and see how you can help, it is the right thing to do as a senior figure. If they are a newly qualified wanting greater variety of work, put the word out on their behalf. If they are a trainee wanting to qualify into another department, see how you can shape their work to be relevant to that team.

Another key way to add value is to be the kind of supervisor who checks in with a junior about how manageable their workload is. If you offer to help redistribute tasks or push back deadlines where needed, you will make their life much easier.

3. Give thanks

If you preserve the junior’s sense of job satisfaction, you will help to bring out the best in them. One way to do this is to communicate praise and appreciation.

If they stay late to finish something, say thank you. If a senior partner emails to say well done, be sure to pass it on and specifically give them credit. Also, share the glory – if there are completion drinks, make sure they are invited.

These are all easy wins that make a real difference.

4. The bigger picture

Performance and drive hugely increase when someone can see that their role is part of something bigger, so help to give them this perspective.

If they spend hours on a piece of research, do not let that be the end of it. Copy them in on the client advice email that their research informs or invite them along to the client meeting. At the very least, update them on what progress was made.

5. Develop them

This sounds obvious, but it cannot be overstated.

Give clear instructions, let them ask plenty of questions, and after their work is done highlight what they did well and how they can develop further. Do not be afraid of this last part, informal chats are far better than ambushing them at an appraisal and damaging their self-confidence.

Avoid exclusively delegating administrative tasks. Balance these out, for example, with more ‘meaty’ drafting experience or by sending them to hearings or relevant training.

If in doubt, go into empathy mode and think back to how you felt when you were just starting out – what do you wish someone had told you or helped you learn? They may not be fully polished lawyers yet, but they are not supposed to be and it is your job to help get them there.

6. Feedback, constructively

Feedback can be given in many ways, some more effective than others…

As a rule of thumb, be specific and pick out one or two illustrative examples. This transforms the way it is received. So for positive feedback, rather than commenting ‘that was good’, it sounds more convincing if you say ‘the drafting was great, you picked out the right clauses from the templates and made the terminology consistent’.

For ‘negative’ feedback, as well as being specific, be clear on how they should be approaching things instead (‘I noticed some grammar errors in the first paragraph. I always find a quick automated grammar check helps...’).

7. It is not all selfless

Helping junior lawyers to fulfil their potential can bring you genuine satisfaction and a sense of pride, especially when you start to see them grow. This is not something we often get from our daily work and so is something pretty special in itself.

However, remember that this is about you too. Perfecting your supervisory skills is an excellent way to develop professionally. Not everyone can successfully build a capable and motivated team and being able to do so puts you ahead of peers in the long-run.

Whether you feel excited or anxious about managing someone, the fact is that your actions will shape their career on some level, and yours too, so it is worth trying to make it a great experience for everyone involved.

(Want some extra support with all this? Why not consider some one-to-one coaching sessions with Red Arbre.)

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