With cost, time, relevance and location identified as the major barriers to effective CPD, practitioners are increasingly looking to flexible online delivery to meet their professional development needs. But what are the pros and cons of training via webinars and e-learning, and how do you identify the best offerings in a very competitive market?

Online provision may be cheap or even free but, unless it is relevant, tailored to its audience with an interactive element, and comes with a clear statement of learning outcomes and high-quality supporting materials, it can be little more than a tick-box exercise which barely disturbs the user’s lunch.

Nottingham Law School carried out a review of CPD for the Solicitors Regulation Authority last year. Its recommendations, which have been fed into the delayed Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), include requiring CPD providers to publish ratings and feedback as a condition of accreditation. The review found practitioners are still most likely to attend external courses and conferences for their CPD, even though these are considered to be the least effective overall. However, flexible online delivery came top in terms of approaches that enable CPD needs to be met.

The key factors which practitioners say distinguish the good from the bad are interactivity, relevance and practical application. So how do practitioners rate their online provision and what are providers doing to make sure the profession’s needs are met? Interest in webinars has grown as listening to them live, with questions at the end, counts towards the ‘live’ element of the 16-hour minimum CPD requirement.

The Law Society’s CPD Centre, which now has 22,500 people registered, will be recording 60 webinars this year. Some will have a video element, but filming is expensive so most will be audio presentations with slides. The subjects include those recommended by the Society’s specialist committees and hot topics in the legal media – such as the referral fee ban. So far this year, about 2,000 people have booked to listen to the live webinars. Publishing and e-learning manager Stephen Honey highlights the pros and cons. ‘It is a quick way of getting information, and the facility to ask questions is important,’ he says, ‘but it isn’t the same as being able to explore a point with someone face to face. However, while the novelty value of webinars may have worn off a bit, people on the whole still see them as providing value for money.’

Roger Bamber, family partner with national law firm Mills & Reeve, is advisory editor of its Family Law Hub, the know-how, update and CPD training resource for private family law practitioners. While he says there is still a place for good face-to-face seminars and workshops, he puts webinars and e-learning at the top of the training hierarchy as the main vehicle for CPD, particularly if combined with know-how and relevant to day-to-day practice.

One criticism has been that webinars can be a ‘lazy’ way of getting CPD points. ‘Make it as lazy as you can frankly,’ he says. ‘If you make it easy for people and they are genuinely motivated because it is relevant and enjoyable, they will do vastly more than the minimum amount required. And if you can get buy-in with people adding notes and flagging up points, then you are really cooking.’

The Family Law Hub has kept its offerings flexible by using an off-the-shelf webinar package so it can link up speakers in different parts of the country and react to events very quickly. It put on a webinar within two days of the Court of Appeal Petrodel decision on piercing the corporate veil and is gearing up to respond to the Supreme Court decision on the case within a day of the judgment. With many practitioners watching the webinars at their desks at lunchtime, a key marker of their effectiveness is if the content and presentation keeps them engaged.

Family Law Hub publisher David Chaplin says it uses an attentiveness rating within the software which picks up if a listener is doing other things on the screen. ‘Generally we get 80%-90% attentiveness which says to me they are engaged. We also get questions which indicate people are taking note of what is being said.’

CLT (Central Law Training) offers about 250 live webinars a year, alongside a menu of 400 face-to-face courses and conferences which are delivered at more than 1,500 events a year. Managing director Rob Farquharson says webinars are ‘more of a Marmite-type training than face-to-face – some people are just turned off by them’. Webinars are good at delivering short, sharp updates, he says. ‘But they are a directive rather than a discursive learning tool,’ he notes, ‘so they work particularly well where a team watches together and the webinar becomes the catalyst for a partner- or professional support lawyer-led discussion on how it relates to their own practice.’

Where they are less successful, he says, is when someone is told to watch one on their own in their lunch hour because their firm will not pay for them to go on a course. ‘There is a place for webinars but I wouldn’t want them to become a more dominant part of our training because I don’t think they are as good as other ways of building skills to be a successful solicitor.’ LexisNexis pitches its webinars for an intermediate audience of 3-5 years’ PQE with very practical hands-on content, although feedback indicates they are also popular with partners and senior associates. About 20% watch them live, the rest on demand, with many subscribers based outside London.

Webinar manager Anna Grigorieva-Berryman says content remains key, but competition means webinars have become ‘more sophisticated, partly because everyone is trying to outdo each other in making them look better. We have built a new studio that makes everything look slicker’. Caroline Brown, training and development manager with newly merged Bond Dickinson, says it uses webinars extensively but as part of a blended training environment. They are watched as part of team networking sessions, but not live, to avoid any technical hitches wasting people’s time.

So what makes a good webinar? ‘It should be topical with relevant case law, and instigate good discussion and learning points,’ she says. ‘The speaker should be clear and know their stuff. The production quality is important but the key is the subject matter.’ However, most people take them for what they are, she says – ‘convenient when you have staff in different locations and helpful in terms of CPD. We tend to get quite a lot of people watching recorded webinars in September and October but they are not a substitute for other forms of training’. The firm may do its own webinars in the future. ‘We have a lot of talent and knowledge within the business and there is no reason why not if we have the technology in play,’ she says.

National law firm Irwin Mitchell launched the IMU Law and Business School in 2011, in conjunction with the College of Law (now the University of Law) and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. Sam Widd, one of the firm’s learning and development consultants, says it does not yet have the technology to produce webinars in-house ‘but we are looking at it for our staff and as a vehicle for offering training to clients’.

‘Training champions’ and regional managing partners identify those webinars they think will offer the best return on investment, and they are generally watched live in group sessions, followed by partner-driven discussions. Used this way, says Widd, ‘they are valuable whether you are a paralegal or a partner, with the added beauty that you can revisit them if you need to refresh your knowledge or if you missed the group session’. Take-up of webinars offered by the C&I Group has been ‘patchy’, depending on the subject area, says the group’s programme developer Sarah Sheehan, a freelance in-house lawyer. ‘In theory, webinars should be wonderful, but I have watched some which haven’t been particularly well-produced and some which were awful,’ she says. ‘I am increasingly seeing their value as an adjunct to face-to-face training.’

The Government Legal Service piloted its first online training solution earlier this year in collaboration with Sweet & Maxwell, part of Thomson Reuters. The modular webinar with CPD accreditation provides flexible training for its 2,000 lawyers spread across the country, in line with the government’s aim of creating a more digital civil service. Not everyone has gone down the webinar route. Nottingham Law School has chosen to offer only face-to-face training, using simulations and workshops, which it felt was a better fit for its brand.

While the webinar market is certainly crowded, e-learning is seen as an area ripe for growth. Unlike webinars, e-learning does not have a live element and is generally more structured, using building blocks to take people through different levels and encourage them to be responsible for their own learning. Irwin Mitchell introduced eCampus as its e-learning platform a year ago. It creates all the material apart from risk and compliance, which is done by an external company on a different learning platform. ‘You have to be self-motivated to do the modules,’ says Widd. ‘They are backed up by scenarios and questions so you have to attain a certain level before you can move on to another area.’

Brown says Bond Dickinson uses e-learning for delivering key messages about issues such as data protection or anti-money laundering across the whole firm. ‘It has its place,’ she says, ‘but again it can’t replace face-to-face contact. However, it has potential. People need to be able to access both legal and business development information quickly, because they have a new tender or a new client, or are preparing a presentation, and they want bite-sized nuggets rather than full-blown courses’. There is still a long way to go in getting e-learning right for lawyers, says Chaplin. ‘There are lots more flashy things you can do. But the big problem is production costs versus what you can get back in terms of revenue.’

A key question for firms is how to measure the online experience in terms of learning outcomes and value for money. Nottingham Law School senior lecturer Pamela Henderson, who led the CPD review, says quantifying learning is a challenge: ‘You need an initial assessment of development needs for each individual. You can then identify and plan their CPD activities, and you should be able to see the results in the work they do afterwards.’

However, the number of firms that systematically try to assess how effective training is, and how much it affects behaviour, is not huge, says Farquharson: ‘Some firms have the luxury of a dedicated learning and development person or team, but otherwise it is hard to measure without a structured exam.’

So how do providers get chosen? The price points are not hugely different, especially if you are buying an enterprise-wide licence as competition has prompted a lot of attractive discount offers and packages. A round-up of advice includes: check the provider’s reputation in the market; do they look at learning outcomes; how do they structure their webinars; does the content fit into the broadcast model or does it leave too many unanswered questions? A good provider will put that into a structured course rather than try to shoehorn it into a webinar.

Clifford Chance’s global video knowledge-sharing project won the Excellence in Learning and Development prize at the Law Society Excellence Awards 2012. It uses video to capture and share the knowledge and experience of senior partners on what it takes to be a good lawyer and trusted adviser. The Clifford Chance Academy has hundreds of programmes on its intranet including legal technical internal lectures and e-learning courses focusing mainly on business skills. Director Tony King says it receives extensive feedback every quarter. ‘We also run evaluations from the developers’ end – a colleague spends all his time checking the content is up to date, that it is meeting the needs of the firm and proposing ideas for new programmes.’

Alongside technological developments which will improve production quality and smooth the way people access the material, law firms and providers are looking at how they can beef up their offerings – with more bite-sized chunks of information, 15-minute power sessions, master classes and diploma courses. Another key area is leveraging the skills of partners to provide training for clients. The University of Law has been reviewing its online CPD provision. Scott Slorach, board member responsible for innovation and design, says it made a conscious decision in the 1990s not to do mass CPD because it felt face-to-face was the best way for people to understand issues in depth. However, it has trialled some online training featuring experts facilitated by professional interviewers, pre-filmed analysis, polls and questions, which prompted good feedback.

The University of Law is planning to launch its first pilot by the autumn, largely driven by international demand from law firms, including some located in Singapore and China. ‘International firms are recruiting lawyers from different jurisdictions with different legal education experience and they need to get everybody aligned at the same level,’ he says. Irwin Mitchell has bought cameras to make its material more engaging, and is looking at offering more advanced modules and more learning streams so staff can achieve diplomas in different practice areas. ‘We want to use every opportunity to develop our talent,’ says Widd, ‘because our end game is to offer the very best service to our clients – so watch this space as the IMU grows.’

Demand for more structured online training is also likely to grow in larger alternative business structures where large teams of paralegals and non-legally-qualified staff work in client-facing roles in often highly sensitive practice areas without the same baseline knowledge as trainees or qualified solicitors. Their career paths will also be different to traditional law firms. ‘Delivering training to people’s desktops in difficult economic circumstances is a good thing,’ says King. But the key is getting the right balance. ‘I am not in favour of everything being done online – having a sensible mix of learning methods is a good thing and I hope the LETR will lead to a greater degree of flexibility in terms of what counts as CPD.’

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist

  • Visit the Law Society’s CPD Centre for an up-to-date list of courses. .