The SRA’s commitment to ‘continuing competence’ places the onus on firms to produce solicitors who can provide first-rate client service.
The man to your left nods off, his pen rattling to the floor, his breathing steady. The woman to your right stirs only to send a text; a few moments ago, she was deleting emails. The speaker’s voice swells and falls, just the occasional word or phrase standing out: ‘Compliance’, ‘heads of terms’, ‘skeleton argument’. Yes, it is a continuing professional development seminar – and you can almost hear the boxes being ticked.
The CPD system of 16 hours’ minimum training per year has been in place for three decades and, in some quarters, long ago lost all value. Some firms refuse to fund CPD, leaving staff to find and pay for their own training outside office hours. Others simply opt for the cheapest courses, irrespective of their relevance. These firms are unlikely to debrief lawyers fresh from a day’s CPD training. They do not ask: how have they added to their skills package? What is new that they can share with their colleagues? Instead, they allow the training to sink without trace. Other firms reason that since they are making money, they have nothing to learn – so what price CPD?
Some practitioners are blameworthy, too. A number even persuade friends to sign them in at courses, gaining CPD points without the pain of actually having to learn anything.
There are many exceptions, of course. There are firms that tailor CPD to individual staff, using the results of annual appraisals to design a bespoke training and development plan. They might organise CPD in-house, again tailored to the requirements of practitioners and the firm. Management in this calibre of firm also underlines the importance of CPD by following up each training session, measuring the benefit and supporting any innovative practices staff may have learned.
And now the Solicitors Regulation Authority is throwing its weight behind a drive to reform CPD and improve ‘competence’ across the profession. After 30 years, it is scrapping the compulsory 16 hours’ minimum training per year and focusing instead on ‘continuing competence’, rather than arbitrary time spent in lecture halls and seminar rooms. To this end, in spring 2015 it is publishing a ‘competence statement’ and supporting toolkit to define what a good solicitor looks like in practice. This is intended to give solicitors and firms guidance on where they need to focus their training to ensure a first-rate standard of service for clients. Full implementation of the new approach will come into effect from 1 November 2016.
From that date, training providers will no longer require authorisation by the SRA and firms will simply need to affirm to the SRA at the end of the CPD year (1 November to 31 October) that their solicitors have undertaken an appropriate level of training. SRA executive director Crispin Passmore, writing in the Gazette (9 June, see tinyurl.com/khb68j9), said: ‘We acknowledge that the departure from a quantitative measure of hours presents cultural challenges for some firms and solicitors. For global businesses, the changes may present less of an issue, since they often have budgets and systems in place to ensure they have the appropriate training policies to attract and keep lawyers and clients in a competitive market.’
He added: ‘But many small firms and sole practitioners tell us that a flexible approach to education and training that focuses on personal responsibility for development and competence is essential when running a small firm or practising alone.’
SRA director of education and training Julie Brannan adds: ‘The SRA is, and will continue to be, focused on the importance of lawyers ensuring that they remain able to give competent advice to those consumers that cannot check for themselves. This is a much better approach to continuing competence. It means firms and individuals can do the training they need, in the way which best suits them.’
The SRA, unsurprisingly, is backing its own initiative. Does the profession also have faith in the planned reforms? Ray Crudgington, managing partner at London firm Grant Saw, tells the Gazette that he is reserving judgement, but fears that even the new training regime will have an element of box-ticking. ‘I am very much in favour of targeted, useful training,’ he says. ‘One of my colleagues once reached 15 October [16 days before the end of the CPD year] with eight hours’ CPD outstanding and about to start a two-week holiday. He satisfied the requirement by watching 16 half-hour videos while he was away, many of which had no relevance to his professional practice.’
What provision is Grant Saw making to adapt to the new regime? ‘I am waiting to see exactly what the requirements are, but I don’t expect much will change,’ says Crudgington. ‘Our lawyers already have access to training materials, webinars and the rest, and they are already encouraged to take responsibility for their training and to feed back on it.’
Did the old regime work, or was it just a box-ticking exercise? ‘It worked for some and was box-ticking for others,’ says Crudgington. ‘If you were going to have to do CPD, then it made sense to do it in good time and ensure it was as relevant as possible to your area of practice.
‘The best thing about the 16 hours’ requirement was that it was simple – do the training, fill out your record, send a feedback form and you have passed. I fear that we are now going to be saddled with an outcome that we have to achieve for everyone’s training, a policy on how we will achieve that outcome, and a quarterly review of the policy to say how we are doing. For the training partner to carry out the review, presumably each lawyer will have to make a return saying how, in their opinion, they have met the objective. There will always be an element of box-ticking, even under the new regime.’
Sole practitioner Gordon Turner of London firm Gordon Turner Employment Lawyers tells the Gazette that the proposed reforms are potentially good for the profession, but that there are more effective learning options than going on a day’s course. ‘Training is very subjective,’ he says. ‘Law updates nowadays are available by pressing a key on your computer, whereas it used to be a case of going to the Law Society library and hoping the book hadn’t been borrowed by somebody else. We don’t need lessons on black letter law. Depending upon your area of practice, we need targeted training on tactics in court, or on what to do if someone is being obstructive, or on so-called “soft skills”. The new regime promises all that.’
He has reservations about training generally. ‘The internet and online support systems have brilliant downloadable guidance, so it is a lot more effective to take a coffee break and read something specific to your own practice needs. Attending a CPD course means wading through a lot of information to get to what you really need,’ Turner says. ‘And anyway, supervised file management for a junior lawyer relates to real practice issues and is much more valuable than sending him or her off on a course.’
Turner also provides training to other solicitors and human resources managers. ‘CPD has never been a burden for me because you get credit each time you do a presentation and also an uplift for preparation time,’ he says. ‘Training can be fun, but it’s also a great profile raiser and a marketing device, so you get to kill a number of practice requirements with one stone.’
Pam Loch, managing director of Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and London firm Loch Associates, ‘is not entirely convinced’ that the new system is going to be any better than the one it replaces. ‘It comes down to how much power the SRA will have to check that firms are paying attention to training,’ she says. In too many cases, according to Loch, the old system expected solicitors to meet certain ‘competences’, as well as ‘big chargeable hours targets’, but without the support of managers willing to invest in training. ‘Can the SRA change this culture?’ she asks. ‘Has it got the teeth?’
‘Training is all-important,’ Loch adds, ‘but it should not just be about the technical points of the law. It should be about how to deal with difficult situations, how to give good advice, how to look after clients, how to manage your time.’
Loch considers that her firm has already gone most of the way towards compliance with the revised training regime. It holds monthly one-to-one meetings to discuss performance and development needs, which are supplemented by annual appraisals to set goals for the coming year and regular file reviews. Loch explains: ‘We will measure this process against the SRA’s competence model and revise it where necessary.’
She concludes: ‘It doesn’t happen with all firms, but it would be a positive change if firms needed to sit down with staff and talk about training. The key is this: we are professionals and obliged to act in our clients’ best interests. There is already an obligation on us to operate to a high standard, but there are now so many ways to qualify as a lawyer that any supervision of training needs teeth. But it’s sad if our profession requires coercion in the form of legislation and regulation simply to ensure we meet the right level of service.’
The SRA’s Passmore insists that scrapping the 16-hour CPD constraint will give solicitors and firms ‘the flexibility to maintain and develop a focus on their learning and development needs’. However, some firms feel that the SRA has simply cast them adrift, devolving all responsibility for training on to their already over-stretched resources. Where – and how – do they start to implement their bespoke training regime?
Athena Law Services, trading as Athena Professional, is one of a number of companies that meets this need. Run by former barrister and law lecturer Nicola Jones and Institute of Personnel and Development chartered fellow Jane Green-Armytage, it helps firms produce an all-round ‘360-degree’ appraisal of their training needs. ‘Simply put,’ says Jones, ‘it helps you know what your people know so that you can assess their competencies.’
‘Training, like other business processes, benefits from analysis to identify where the strengths and weaknesses lie,’ adds Green-Armytage. ‘Too many law firms lack a learning strategy to underpin their approach. We can help.’
And so the dawning of the brave new world of outcomes-focused learning could spell the end of snoozing fitfully through the graveyard shift that is the final CPD lecture of the afternoon. Training is going to be dynamic, relevant and targeted with pinpoint accuracy at the needs of practitioners and their firms. Or at any rate, that is what we are promised.
WHAT CILEx IS DOING
The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives is introducing a new outcomes-focused regime of CPD on 1 October.
CILEx head of qualifications Vicky Purtill tells the Gazette that the new CPD system requires legal executives to make nine entries a year on to a centrally kept record of their training activities.
‘At least four of these entries should derive from an annual appraisal or reflection [the latter being a collaborative process of discussing development needs with a department head or other senior figure],’ she says.
‘Four should be planned or unplanned arising from, for example, working on a case in a new area of practice or one that has an element that you have never encountered before. The ninth should derive from what we are calling the professionalism module.’
The CILEx website explains that for the purposes of fulfilling the CPD requirement in professionalism, practitioners need to learn something new, or refresh or develop their knowledge or skills, in one of the following areas:
- Professional ethics, including the CILEx Code of Conduct;
- Improved awareness of their clients’ business and issues that may affect them;
- Developing client communication skills;
- Improving their skills in dealing with challenging clients;
- Better knowledge and understanding of equality and diversity issues; and
- Improved time-management skills.