Managing trainee lawyers

Here, we look at the sometimes tricky art of giving feedback to trainees. We discuss the importance of feedback and look at ways to deliver it as effectively as possible.

At some point in your in-house legal career, you’re likely to find yourself managing trainees.

A big part of this is giving them balanced, constructive feedback to help them develop and to improve their contribution to your department. Giving feedback is not always easy, however there are some proven techniques that will help you.

Feedback: a foundation for the future

If you offer employment opportunities to trainees, you can maximise the value of their contribution and longer-term potential by structuring the feedback you give them during their trainee-ship in your department.

What is feedback?

Feedback is your assessment of another person’s work, accomplishments, actions or decisions. Done properly, it helps people to see themselves as others see them in a way that allows them to move forward and to develop, rather than to feel criticised and crumbling. This in turn enables them to build on their strengths, address their weaknesses and improve their contributions. It gives individuals the opportunity to do things differently in the future and develop their skills.

Why is it important?

Feedback is important because it can improve levels of motivation and performance and help people to evolve - we are in fast changing environments and very few roles stay static for long so a growth mindset is critical to having a good long term in-house career. On the other hand, if it’s badly handled, or avoided altogether, it can cause superficial conformity, feelings of rejection and even resentment. And the longer it is left and the harder formed the false self-impressions have become, the harder it is to correct things and the tougher it is on the individual, their peers and their colleagues as a result.

Why is it difficult?

By nature, we don’t enjoy criticising others. There’s always the risk that what we have to say may make the other person upset, defensive or argumentative. For some people, giving and receiving praise can also be uncomfortable. Giving feedback can sometimes be tricky.

Five things feedback should always be

When giving feedback to trainees, make it:

  • Balanced. Present positive and negative factors and focus on what the trainee is good at as well as the areas they could improve in. Make sure that your expectations of someone at their level with their experiences are realistic - which can be hard if it was a long time since you were at that level;
  • Specific, factual and descriptive. Phrases like ‘that was fine’ or ‘that was bad’ aren’t particularly helpful. Specific information will improve performance, along with guidance. Explain what was good and what needs to be improved and what a successful improved version would look like. If you cannot explain it in a way that they can understand then the chances of them getting it right will be low and it will not be their fault if they fail. Give your reasons why and how the trainee can make the improvements you’re asking for. Avoid loading your feedback with judgements or inferences about what happened;
  • Constructive. To ensure your feedback is beneficial to both the trainee and your organisation, make it constructive and present it in a way that motivates them to improve and recognise and celebrate when they have - positive affirmation of achievement has many benefits;
  • Accurate. Always double check that any feedback you give is accurate, clear and easy to understand; and
  • Direct. Feedback is far more positive when you offer it directly and with confidence and with integrity (you must practice what you preach!).

AID - three steps to effective feedback

A good way to structure feedback is to use the AID formula, where:

A = action. What work or activity are you giving feedback on?

I = impact. What was the result or effect of the activity?

D = desired outcome. What do you want the trainee to continue to do, improve on or stop doing?

Developing a bespoke delegation model flow chart

A bespoke delegation model for your department will enable you to structure the tasks you set trainees and give you a framework for future feedback. You can use the model to:

  • Identify and separate specific tasks and understand the issues involved;
  • Identify the appropriate trainee from the skills, experience, time and priority setting of each task; and
  • Gather the information you need to brief the trainee.

When delegating the tasks, provide the trainee with:

  • Sufficient background information without overwhelming them with irrelevant detail;
  • The objectives of the task and what you expect of them;
  • Time, cost and quality parameters; and
  • The resources and methodologies to succeed.

Then, depending on the how skilled and motivated your trainee is, you could opt for one of these four approaches with them:

  • The low skilled, low willed trainee: be direct and tell them specifically what you require and how they can achieve it. Exercise tight control over the parameters and methodology, agree a regular review schedule with the trainee and clarify your expectations at review meetings;
  • The low skilled, high willed trainee: provide guidance by setting out the basis and core ideas behind the task. Ask questions, invite ideas and explain concepts and processes as required. Be available to support the trainee and reinforce good behaviour;
  • The high skilled, low willed trainee: aim to excite this person by asking them how they’ll go about the task. Encourage reflection and self-correction and increase their sense of ownership and responsibility by involving them in decision-making. Praise this trainee publically, but deliver your constructive criticism in private. At the same time, seek feedback on your own performance; and
  • The high skilled, high willed trainee: adopt a light touch by setting objectives rather than spelling out a methodology. Ask the trainee how they’ll achieve the objectives and support good ideas. Correct any mistakes as necessary. Be sincere in your praise and constructive and task-focused in your criticism. Link their ability to correct issues to their personal development.

Catch-up meetings

It’s a good idea to hold less formal catch-up meetings throughout your trainee's time with you in addition to their welcome session and mid and end of "seat" reviews. These will give you an opportunity to ask general questions, such as:

  • How are things?
  • What else have you been working on?
  • What do you think has gone well / not so well?
  • What do you feel are your strengths? and
  • What do you see as your development areas?

You can also take this opportunity to invite your trainee to offer upward feedback and raise questions about their development or their experience in the seat. And, of course, you can review the objectives of the tasks they’re working on.

When you receive feedback - especially from someone junior - then always just say "thank you" and then seek to do something subsequently that shows that you have absorbed and acted on that feedback. The reasons for this are that it will have taken some courage for the feedback to be offered; it will be well intended even if misguided. If it is misguided then their misunderstanding is as much your fault as their manager as it would be if they were right and you had done something wrong. Seeking to justify, bluster and defend is going to undermine you as a "trusted, caring and open manager" and it will also close down the communication channel - not good in a manager/managed relationship.

Feedback scenarios

The following five scenarios are typical instances where you may have to give feedback to a trainee. Using the AID formula above, think about how you’d approach these issues with the four types of trainee outlined in the delegate model flow chart.

Scenario 1

Your trainee is three weeks into her time in your department. On several occasions, she has left at 5.30 pm without asking if there’s any other work for her to do. This has resulted in you having to pick up tasks that she should’ve done.

Scenario 2

A trainee you’re supervising dresses in an inappropriate manner.

Scenario 3

At a recent event, a client commented on the efficient and professional approach adopted by your trainee.

Scenario 4

Your trainee comes to your desk several times a day without reading the signals that you’re busy. You’re finding the situation challenging.

Scenario 5

Two weeks ago, you asked a trainee to do some research for you. You didn’t give him a specific deadline but would have expected something back by now. This is the second time in two months this situation has arisen.

All of these scenarios and others - like chronic personal hygiene, will visit you at some point and the way in which you handle them will be very circumstances specific. The key is to have a respectful, thoughtful and emotionally aware approach to the issue and to remember that what matters is what they think that they have heard and not simply what you want to say. Remember think carefully about how to present things to them in language and terms that they can understand - especially when there is a large age, cultural, upbringing and/or diversity difference between you. Good managers bridge communication gaps rather than expecting the managed to do so.


Giving feedback to trainees can be a delicate matter. You don’t want to demotivate or upset them unnecessarily, yet you need to point certain things out in the interests of their personal development as well as your department’s productivity. Keep your feedback on point, balanced and constructive to make it as effective as possible. Use the AID formula and think about developing a bespoke delegation model flow chart.