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Reviewing trainee’s progress

1 February 02

Quarterly performance meetings to assess a trainee’s development are an essential component of the new training regime

by Stewart, Heather

Quarterly performance review meetings to assess a trainee’s development are an essential component of the new training regime, writes Heather Stewart

The new regime for training Solicitors in Scotland is in place and the completion of Logbooks by trainees and Quarterly Performance Reviews by trainers is a prerequisite for entry to the Test of Professional Competence. The relationship between trainer and trainee differs from the normal employer/employee relationship because you, the trainer, are responsible not only for the successful accomplishment of the training but also for the development of the individual as a person fit to enter the profession. This involves supervising the trainee’s acquisition of a set of skills other than purely technical skills. The process of Quarterly Performance Reviews aims to provide a framework to assist you both to assess the level of your trainee’s development on an ongoing basis and to consider which further skills and competences he or she needs to acquire and how that acquisition is to be achieved. It effectively forms an audit trail of the level of attainment of those skills prior to entry to the Test of Professional Competence.

Performance Review should be regarded as a means of building up a picture of the development of each trainee. Therefore it is important that it is carried out regularly and consistently. Failure to do so will mean that the system will be less effective and it will lose credibility. Performance Review should be seen as creating a formal structure in addition to, but not as a substitute for, the usual mentoring and guidance given by a trainer to a trainee. The latter should continue on an individual and often informal basis to help increase the trainee’s experience and to improve his/her skills and competences. Both should form part of the trainee’s overall development plan to ensure that the whole process grows in effectiveness through momentum and continuity.

The Quarterly Performance Reviews should be relevant and useful to both parties and should prove motivational for the trainee by ensuring that he or she is exposed to as many skills as possible during the period of training. It is important that you emphasise the importance of the process to your trainee. Quarterly meetings should be seen as an opportunity to clarify his or her levels of attainment of the requisite skills or competences, and to assess both what he or she needs to improve in any particular area, and what steps the trainer or firm can take to provide the requisite training. The majority of the skills will be learned from observing others within the office – your own example is the greatest influence on your trainee. The process should also be seen as a means of the trainee becoming aware of his or her own potential and how that potential can be fulfilled by making the most of his or her individual talents and capabilities. Over time, as you and your trainees become more familiar with the reviews, confidence in their use and their benefits will increase.  

Preparing for a Performance Review meeting

The Performance Review sheet, which can be down loaded from the Society’s website (www.lawscot.org.uk), contains a list of nine skills relevant to legal practice against which you are asked to assess your trainee’s competence. This may at first appear a daunting task. How do you assess whether the trainee can be considered competent in each area? Begin by breaking down each skill into subheadings. Professional conduct and ethics, for example, might relate to the ability to identify and adhere to the rules of professional conduct and ethical considerations in day-to-day practice relating to handling clients’ money, confidentiality, conflict of interest, client care issues, professional undertakings, and obligations to the Court. These indicators are not exhaustive but if you prepare a list of subheadings for each skill your task will be more approachable. You should use the same subheadings for each skill as the basis for your opinion on competence at each Performance Review meeting.  

Preparation for each meeting is essential because if you appear disinterested in the process it will be de-motivating to your trainee. Consider your own views on how the trainee is coming on before the meeting in relation to the skills and their subheadings, and how they are doing generally. Refer back to the last Performance Review sheet. How have things progressed? Consult with any colleagues who have been involved. How do they think the trainee is doing? What level of skill has he or she attained? What do you think needs to be improved? Has the level of supervision been adequate? What does the trainee need to move onto next? Is it appropriate for the relevant stage in the training? How are you going to monitor the assessment of a particular skill? If your firm cannot give the requisite training, can it be provided from another source?

Trainees should also be encouraged to prepare their own thoughts and review their own progress before the meeting. They should consider the areas in which they feel they have made progress and what they need to learn to gain competence in those that they think could be improved. Which areas have been the most problematic for them, and why? What do they feel will be the best way for them to achieve competence? What extra help do they feel they need? What have they really enjoyed doing in the last period? What do they see as their priorities for the next period?

The meeting itself

Make time for the meeting which will be more successful if it is structured – it should be more than just an informal chat. Explain to the trainee what you are trying to achieve, and if a new trainee, explain the skills and how you arrive at your assessment of competence. Let them know how you want to conduct the meeting and remember it should be a discussion between you. It is important to make the trainee feel comfortable and able to express his or her opinion – be mindful of your different positions and try to put yourself in your trainee’s shoes. You can begin by asking the trainee to assess his or her own performance since the last meeting. Use open questions to get more information – “Can you tell me a bit more about why you think that?” It is vital that you actually listen to your trainee and are seen to take on board what he or she is saying.

Give them praise and highlight their strengths. Yes, you may need to point out areas that they need to improve and you may need to be assertive, but do not be aggressive in tone. Talk about facts, not about their personality, they cannot change that but they can do things differently, if you show them how. Trainees want to do well and to absorb as much information as possible. They want to work accurately and correctly and to make the most of their training but do not have any benchmarks against which to assess themselves. They have to rely on you, the trainer, to give them feedback on how they are doing, including constructive criticism if necessary. To be told something is satisfactory means nothing. How could it be better? They want to know that if something is good or could be improved, why specifically it is good or is not up to standard. Being told that something is not up to scratch is useless to a person who does not have the knowledge of how to improve matters. Give them specific examples of what is best practice, how to deal with a client meeting, what a well-drafted document looks like and why you consider it to be so, for example. Let them know the standard that you expect them to achieve and discuss with them the way in which they can improve. Setting objectives with trainees is not a requirement of Performance Review but, in practice, trainees usually want to have something to aim towards and agreeing objectives at the end of the meeting may be helpful to both you and the trainee. They also form a useful point of reference for the next meeting. Always ensure that meetings are a positive experience for the trainee.

Completing the Performance Review Sheet

The Performance Review sheet should be completed at the end of each meeting. The Society has recently developed a system for the on-line submission of completed Reviews. This is the preferred method and you are urged to make use of it. The system is straightforward to use and you will be guided through the process step by step. All trainees have recently received information about the system. Whether you choose to submit on-line or manually, you are asked to assess and record your trainee’s performance, appropriate to the particular stage in their training. Anticipated levels of performance will vary considerably between, for example, a trainee in their first six months of training and one a year further on. Remember too that it is up to you to develop your trainee’s trust in you and in the process – be fair and avoid bias in your responses to the form.

Ongoing supervision

Performance Review meetings are not a substitute for the ongoing supervision and guidance that you have always given to your trainees. Do not save up any criticisms for the Performance Review meeting but deal with any problems as they arise. The same type of feedback should be given to trainees on an ongoing basis. You should observe and encourage progress towards reaching and maintaining standards and endeavour to make the most of your trainee’s capabilities. Acknowledge achievement, a simple well done is sufficient most of the time if it is really meant. Sincere praise and a sign of appreciation for the contribution of the trainee will provide a sense of achievement. Within the firm, a trainer should not take credit for good work done by a trainee. Rather you need to be supportive and if a trainee fails in a task, you should explain to him/her why they have failed and then show them what they should have done, without blame or causing embarrassment to the trainee. You should recognise the strengths of your trainees and give constructive criticism about their weaknesses.

Dr Heather Stewart MBA Solicitor Consultant with Otterburn Legal Consulting

Quarterly Reviews have been in use now for nine months, for those trainees who commenced their training contracts at the earliest opportunity last May, and a significant amount of feedback has been received. A review group will meet in early March to consider this feedback and any further comments you may wish to make. You are invited to pass your comments to Linda Thomson, Manager (Legal Education) at lindathomson@lawscot.org.uk by Tuesday 5th March.