Death by Powerpoint: why CPD training needs to change

By Beth Pipe

I remember the helpless look on the delegates faces as I left the room. I was working as an in-house Learning and Development (L&D) Manager at the time and they were about to embark on their Management Stage 1 training course. As is often the case, most of the delegates had left it until the very last minute to attend the training and, as I was new to both the firm and the legal sector, I’d booked one of the big name providers to come in; they had an excellent reputation for delivering black letter training, so who was I to cast aspersions?

My first concerns came when the trainer arrived with an enormous box of materials. Not activities, games or other interactive learning materials, just a huge pile of handouts. Next up came their presentation – 210 very wordy PowerPoint slides. I double checked my facts. “This is just a one day course isn’t it?”, I asked the trainer. “Oh yes”, they replied with a cheery grin, “just the one day.”

As the delegates arrived and eyed the inch thick pile of documents awaiting each of them, their faces fell and, as I left the room, I knew that 10 minutes later most of them would be fighting the urge to nod off, and praying hard for 4:30 pm to come. The feedback forms were some of the most scathing I’ve seen and it’s fair to say they learned very little, but at least they’d ticked the box: “Management Stage 1” – check. (The scariest part was that some of them now believed they knew all they needed to know about management.)

Aside from the 210 PowerPoint slides, what was wrong with the course? Well, primarily it failed to link any of the learning back to day-to-day activities; aside from ticking a box for the SRA, none of the delegates really understood why they were there and what they were supposed to be learning about and, as CPD rules currently stand, that’s the case for more courses than I care to think about.

With their ambitious Training for Tomorrow initiative, the SRA has recognised this and are trying to do something about it, but, to be successful, law firms must also recognise that L&D is not a standalone activity only to be deployed in cases of underperformance or when SRA regulations demand it. When delivered in these circumstances, L&D can be perceived at best as a punishment and at worst as a pointless waste of time that could be spent doing something more profitable.

Learners need to be informed of why they are attending any given course on an individual level, and also how that fits in with the business plans of the department and firm in general.

Here are five areas law firms can link L&D training to, so that it is relevant for learners:

  1. The appraisals process – and I mean a proper appraisals process, not the “once a year tick the box to keep HR happy” activity I see so often across so many business sectors.
  2. The complaints file – what is the firm getting wrong, what are the trends, what do you need to do about it?
  3. The compliments file – what are you getting right, and how can you do more of it?
  4. The business plan – what skills do you have in the firm now, and what skills will you need in three years’ time?
  5. The partnership promotion criteria – how can individuals build a career path within the firm?

With the proposed deregulation of training, provider firms must also ensure that any training delivered is done by someone who understands how to engage with people and help them learn. Being able to use PowerPoint does not make anyone a trainer any more than having a pair of legs makes them Usain Bolt. In-house courses are an excellent way to share expertise, so long as they are delivered well and, though the SRA may no longer vet external providers, firms would be well advised to do so.

Unless, of course, you have a hankering to spend an entire day locked in a darkened room with 210 PowerPoint slides for company?

Thought not.

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