‘Lawyers abhor the amorphous,’ a 27-year PQE solicitor tells the Gazette. ‘We are programmed to achieve concrete outcomes. A purchase completed. A deal sealed. A contract rescinded.’ She is talking about the revised continuing professional development scheme, which at first sight does indeed seem amorphous. In the place of 16 hours of approved training a year, for example, the buzzwords are ‘competence statement’, ‘smart-sized e-learning’ and ‘personal development plan’.

What do these terms entail? Are they management-speak? Or are they the harbingers of a long-awaited overhaul of the system by which solicitors are kept up to speed with this country’s constantly evolving legal landscape?

The Law Society subscribes to the second of these views – that the new scheme will help shape a profession that is fit for purpose now and in the future. To that end, the Society created a Professional Development Centre (PDC) which has replaced – and is not to be confused with – its CPD Centre. The new PDC’s role is to help solicitors comply with the SRA’s continuing competence scheme, which came into force on 1 November last year.

Solicitors’ learning and development needs are changing. A different approach to continuing development was needed.

Continuing competence is measured against the SRA’s statement of solicitor competence, published in the spring of 2015. This statement includes a ‘threshold standard’ which sets out the competencies that individuals should have attained upon their qualification as solicitors. It is also the standard against which solicitors can measure their competence as practitioners in the years after qualification.

Helen Donegan, content manager responsible for the Law Society’s publications and e-learning teams, explains how the ‘threshold standard’ is measured. ‘Competences are rated on a scale of one to five,’ she says. ‘The threshold standard is number three on the scale, the median. All practising solicitors, from the day they qualify, are expected to attain level three. We expect many practitioners to advance to level four or five, of course, but any rating below three would be an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.’

Under the new system, there is no longer a requirement to attend courses given by approved providers. There is also no need to complete a certain number of hours of training every year. This will put an end to solicitors attending courses that are only marginally relevant to their area of practice in order to clock up the requisite number of hours of training.

Competence statement

The SRA’s competence statement for solicitors broadly defines competence as ‘the ability to perform the roles and tasks required by one’s job to the expected standard’.

The definition is left so general because requirements and expectations vary, depending on job role and context. This is because the solicitors’ profession embraces so many diverse areas of the law, and ranges (for example) across government, the City, sole practitioners and publicly funded practitioners.

Nonetheless, the statement recognises four distinct disciplines that pervade all areas of a solicitor’s work. These are:

  • Ethics, professionalism and judgement, including acting with honesty and integrity;
  • Technical legal practice, including legal research and advising on relevant options, strategies and solutions;
  • Working with others, including clear communications and maintaining professional relations with clients and others; and
  • Managing themselves and their own work, including time-management, keeping complete records and applying good business practice.

Instead, solicitors are now expected to review their own learning needs against the competence statement and address them through CPD activities. They should then ‘reflect’ on the learning they have undertaken and look at ways they can incorporate it into their practice. This should, in turn, encourage a further review of other learning needs.

As the Society says, solicitors’ learning and development needs are changing. New regulatory requirements mean solicitors need a different approach to continuing development – one that allows them to record their learning achievements.

In step with this, Law Society research on the legal education and training needs of solicitors showed a growing appetite for e-learning which fits around demanding work schedules. The PDC is a new and enhanced e-learning portal which has replaced the CPD centre to help members meet the new continuing competence requirements.

Activities that count

Solicitors have long complained that the old CPD regime did not acknowledge many of the most useful learning activities that they undertook. The new PDC system recognises this anomaly and enables solicitors to tailor  activities to their specific development needs and individual learning style. Examples of these activities now include:

  • Working towards professional qualifications;
  • Giving coaching and/or mentoring sessions;
  • Work shadowing;
  • Watching/listening to audio-visual material;
  • Distance learning;
  • Writing on law or practice; and
  • Research.

A learning activity is anything that you undertake outside of your usual role in order to meet your learning and development needs. There is no prescribed list of allowed activities, although the SRA’s toolkit sets out some suggestions.

In tandem with the new centre, the Society has developed a series of new ‘smart-sized’ e-learning courses, which are free and ideal for integrating quick, bite-sized learning – they can last for as little as 15 minutes – into busy work schedules.

Meanwhile, the SRA produced an online toolkit to help practitioners comply with the new regime.

The 27-year PQE solicitor is asked whether this is all sufficiently ‘concrete’ and not ‘amorphous’ at all. ‘Impressive,’ she replies. ‘No more sitting in conference halls surrounded by bored people catching up on their emails because there is nothing being said of direct interest to their practice. Progress indeed.’