Despite the Government’s plea for office workers to return to work provided it is safe to do so, many city workers and their employers have discovered the benefits of working from home. The past five months have shown that many people are more productive, less stressed, and happier overall when they abandon commuting and are encouraged to embrace homeworking. Employers also realise that they can save money by making plans to downsize, or in some cases, quit their central city offices.
For solicitors, the most highly regulated of the professions, one of the challenges presented by homeworking is the ability to supervise staff. Trainees and junior solicitors can be especially vulnerable to mistakes, and without adequate support and supervision, the risk of covering up such instances using dishonest tactics is increased.
In late July, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal declined to make an order against a trainee who admitted claiming time for work which she had not done. The trainee told the Tribunal that she had been suffering from workplace anxiety because of ‘excessive working hours’ and ‘unrealistic deadlines’, adding that her colleagues were ‘oppressive and unapproachable’.
The above incident is an example of how a trainee or junior solicitor under pressure and feeling they are unable to speak to co-workers, can unwittingly risk their career and their law firm’s reputation by attempting to cover up a mistake.
Adequate supervision is crucial to avoid such incidents.
What are the trainee solicitors regulatory requirements?
For trainee solicitors who commenced their PRT before 25 November 2019, the SRA’s former provisions – SRA Training Regulations 2014 – Qualification and Provider Regulations (the 2014 regulations) apply. Trainees that began their PRT on or after 25 November 2019, the SRA Education, Training and Assessment Provider Regulations (the 2019 regulations) are applicable.
Under the 2014 Regulations, trainees need to be supervised by staff who have the right experience and skills to oversee trainees’ work adequately. Supervisors must be able to ensure the trainee has relevant learning and development opportunities to enable him/her to meet the Practice Skills Standards and understands SRA compliance. Regular reviews and appraisals are also a requirement and a detailed record of the training must be kept by the trainee.
The new 2019 Regulations states that the SRA may monitor the training provided by firms to juniors, and this could include a visit from the SRA.
For law firms looking to make homeworking the norm rather than the exception, investing in technology is the key to being able to supervise employees adequately.
How can technology assist a law firm with supervising trainees?
Technology in the legal sector is constantly evolving and provides solutions to supervising remote working. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen some law firms move to a paperless environment for security reasons, with some abandoning printing completely .
Workflow tools that use data to complete specific processes and notify not only the solicitor, but their supervisor when a task needs completing, will help minimise instances of actions on files being left uncompleted.
Remote workers will also need access to technology such as GoogleDocs or a cloud-based encrypted server to be able to view confidential documents safely. In addition, “always on” communication tools such as Slack ensures all team communications are in one place and are searchable, enabling the ability to check communications between supervisors and trainees quickly.
What about data protection?
As employees from all industries embrace homeworking, cyber-criminals are taking advantage of less robust cybersecurity systems. Law firms with homeworkers will need to be extra vigilant to ensure all staff – especially less experienced juniors and trainees – have the knowledge and tools to mitigate the risk of cyberattacks.
George Marcotte, managing director of Accenture Applied Intelligence for UK and Ireland told Wired :
“There is an increased risk around data and intellectual property, and you need to accommodate that and build more resilience and risk protocols around it.” He adds, “Many of our clients are also finding that the regulatory regime around data continues to shift and that people’s perspectives and values around using their data also shifts – not just in the crisis, but over time as well.”
The world of work was already changing – the pandemic has simply accelerated the growing trend in remote working. Law firms need to put in place appropriate policies and procedures for workplace supervision to protect not only their juniors and trainees but the reputation of the practice.
We have been helping solicitors and other legal professionals with disciplinary and regulatory advice for over 20 years. If you have any questions relating to an SRA investigation or an SDT appearance, please call us on 0151 909 2380 or complete our Free Online Enquiry.