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From 1 April 2015, your firm will have a decision to make regarding its approach to ongoing learning, with the SRA offering you the choice of either sticking with the existing continuing professional development (CPD) scheme or switching to its new “continuing competence” regime.
The indications are that a sizeable proportion of the solicitor profession is likely to opt for the new approach, with a poll taken during an SRA webinar broadcast on 16 October showing that 30% of the audience was intending to do so. As the scheme will apply to the entire profession from 1 November 2016, there’s much to be said for being an early adopter and embedding the new learning culture within your practice sooner rather than later.
However, the downside – which was highlighted in the same poll which showed that 60% of the audience was still undecided – is that, with the details of implementation yet to be fully revealed, it’s not entirely clear what you will be opting into!
So what do we know about the SRA’s approach to continuing competence?
The most widely reported aspect of the new scheme is the scrapping of the annual requirement for solicitors to undertake 16 hours of CPD. While the end of the annual target seems to have been well received by those who struggled to accommodate learning within a culture emphasizing billable hours, the previous scheme did at least provide certainty.
The removal of the target is designed to encourage solicitors to take a more planned approach to training and focus on activities that will improve knowledge and skills in areas that will directly benefit them in their work. Previously there was an impression that many felt pressured to attend courses that weren’t directly relevant to their practice – particularly in the run up to the end of the CPD year. One possible impact of this change of emphasis is that a greater number of firms may choose to source bespoke training in-house which can be tailored to their specific requirements, rather than attending external courses which may attempt to cater to a diverse audience with a “one size fits all” approach”.
In tandem with removing the annual hours target, the SRA has also ceased to recognize the distinction between “accredited” and “unaccredited” training and no longer accredits individual training providers. The upshot of this is that you will now have a wider choice of activities that can satisfy your learning needs. Whilst the SRA admits that accreditation was never a kitemark of quality, you will need to satisfy yourself that the training a provider is offering in the new deregulated environment is of a sufficient standard to meet your firm’s needs.
The SRA’s continuing competence scheme, which replaces the 16 hour target, has similarities with the system which the ICAEW has been running since 2005 with chartered accountants needing to complete as much development activity as they feel they need to remain competent in their role without meeting a prescribed number of hours.
Underpinning the SRA’s approach is the concept of the “statement of competence”. The statement is essentially a description of the skills, knowledge and abilities that a competent solicitor should possess. We now have a good idea of what this statement will look like, with the SRA publishing its draft version last October. The consultation period closed on 12 January 2015 and, given the tight timescale for roll out, any changes to the final version is now likely to be minor. The statement groups the abilities and attributes that competent solicitors should display fewer than four main headings:
With the statement applying to all members of the profession – regardless of which stage of their career they have reached or the type of entity within which they operate – it is necessarily generic in its approach. The competence statement is intended to act as benchmark against which practitioners must assess their own performance and identify any areas for improvement. Having done so, they are then required to devise and implement a training plan to address these deficiencies.
One notable feature of the statement is the emphasis it places on business skills and abilities in addition to technical legal knowledge. The succinct way in which some of these requirements are expressed – for example, the need to treat “clients with courtesy and respect” and communicate using “clear, succinct and accurate language” - may make them appear obvious, but they do at least reflect a recognition of the increased importance of interpersonal skills in attracting and retaining clients in the provision of modern legal services.
If your firm wants to move to the continuing competence model from April, you simply need to choose to do so – there’s no requirement to inform the SRA. However, uncertainties about how the new scheme will work in practice remain and much less clear at this stage is how the SRA intends that the individual solicitors within your practice should demonstrate that they have met the standards set out in the statement and how they should document the steps that they have gone through in developing and implementing their individual training plans.
Although there’s no firm date for when the SRA will clarify its requirements, it has promised to issue a toolkit on its website in the spring with the SRA’s Director of Education and Training Julie Brannan stating that this toolkit will set out best practice for training and provide materials that will help practitioners reflect on their practice and keep a training log
Although there are still important questions to be answered, one thing is clear - the abandonment of mandatory CPD certainly doesn’t signal the end of the need for ongoing training and development – although the forms that this will take may change. Solicitors will still need to maintain and refresh their knowledge and skills on an ongoing basis – whether through courses, webinars or any of the broad range of learning activities that the SRA now recognises under its new deregulated approach.
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