New CPD rules: how to implement them in your practice

What is the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) new mandatory regime on continuing professional development (CPD) for solicitors? Nicola Jones, co-founder and director of Athena Professional and a learning for performance consultant, takes a look at the new rules and provides guidance on how firms can implement them into their practices.

What prompted the SRA to introduce this new regime on CPD

Provisions for CPD were reviewed as part of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), a joint project between the SRA, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and the Chartered Institute for Legal Executives (CILEX), which reported in 2013. CILEX had already moved to a partially learning outcomes based approach to continuing professional development and it was felt that this was an opportunity to drop the ‘tick box’ hours-based approach. One solicitor is quoted in the LETR report as saying:‘What’s the purpose of CPD again?… It’s a serious question because I’m not sure. I can’t remember whether it’s to learn something or to show you’ve spent 16 hours a year pretending to learn something to satisfy the sort of thing that you ought to be doing.’

 

The prevailing view was that CPD needed to be more flexible and orientated towards the needs of the individual. Central to the whole rationale was the move to the idea of ‘competence to practise’ – a solicitor and his/her employer are now required to make a declaration of competence to practise, which, in effect, confirms that the requirements of the job and the knowledge, skills and attributes of the individual have been actively addressed through an on-going process of learning and reflection.

How much of a change will this require in approach and practice for firms and solicitors?

The first thing to note is that the SRA will not be actively enforcing these regulations. Only when a complaint of incompetence is received will the SRA require evidence of competence to practise to be produced. Some individuals have taken this as the green light to carry on as before or even to do less. Others have made CPD a matter for the compliance officer for legal practice (COLP), with a focus on collecting data in order to be able to demonstrate compliance.In my opinion the most powerful way to use learning is to make sure it is aligned to the business strategy. Most lawyers regard this as a given. The thinking goes – we need to be good at law and nice to clients, then our business will grow. However, there is also a wide-spread recognition that, in order to survive, firms need to be adaptable, innovative and entrepreneurial. Often, this requires people to demonstrate a range of skills in which they are relatively inexperienced. For example, driving work down to less expensive team members requires an ability to lead and manage people which some solicitors find challenging.

 

The introduction of a competence-based regime opens up the continuous learning agenda. Central to this is the idea that a firm can identify its own competencies, as long as they fit with the over-all import of the SRA’s competency statement. Further, not everyone is expected to have the same competencies. This throws up three brilliant business opportunities to:

  1. assess what competencies are required for each role
  2. think carefully about who needs to demonstrate which competencies – taking care to think afresh about what roles will really deliver what’s needed
  3. create a learning culture in which individuals take responsibility for their own learning, thinking actively about what the firm needs and how they can best contribute

The other hugely important change is that learning is no longer a set thing, ie a number of hours – it can be whatever the business needs it to be and that includes recognition of a wide range of learning activities, such as private research or reading, as long as those activities are related to a learning need and evidence of the application of the learning can be provided. Crucially, there is an opportunity for the legal sector to leap frog over 20 years of developing online learning and move straight to using what digital learning has to offer.

How are firms handling the transition to the new regime and its implementation? What methods and practices are they using to comply with the new rules?

The two observable trends have been:

 

  1. developing effective recording systems
  2. increased emphasis on effective performance management

Both are important to be able to evidence a cycle of learning, the application of learning and continuing assessment of learning need. However, there is a real risk that the opportunity to use learning as a driver to achieve business goals is lost if the only change is to tighten up pre-existing systems.

The Law Society and SRA are providing support for firms and solicitors to help them comply with the new rules. What are the potential benefits of these forms of support?

The Law Society has produced their own template for recording CPD and some other resources. The SRA have some useful material on the competency-based approach, including some case studies which can help calibrate what approach is appropriate in a variety of circumstances, eg for a one partner firm. Again, helpful ways to implement the process, but the whole point is that individual firms can now identify what competence means to them, rather than adopting a one-size fits all system, so just relying on this stuff rather misses the point.

 

What are the possible benefits of the new regime and how can firms best seek to take advantage of them?

In addition to what I have already mentioned above, I think that firms should dare to think about continuous learning as something other than legal updates. They can create competencies aligned to business goals and make them work for everyone in the business from support staff to senior partner and can bring people together to create cohesion and a sense of common purpose in the firm. Continuous learning is practical. It lends itself to developing individual confidence and making a difference to how people work, as well as what they do. Always think about the learning in terms of the ‘I am going to learn about X, so that I can…’.

 

What are the possible pitfalls in approach and practice for firms and solicitors in seeking to comply with the new regime?

The risk is that continuous learning will get pushed out to the COLP or worse, get lost altogether in the hurly burly of daily work. Clearly, there’s a risk there should the worst happen and the SRA become interested in the firm. While the work rolls in perhaps people will feel safe with this approach, but the real pinch point is that everyone is keenly aware that the work is highly unlikely to just keep rolling in. Market change is accelerating. People need to be equipped to respond. Now the door is open to all sorts of ways of learning, helping people develop to meet the challenges of the market is possible. Demonstrating compliance will be incidental.Interviewed by Diana Bentley.

 

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

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