Decision time: CPD or continuing competence?

Decision time: CPD or continuing competence?

CPD-and-continuing-competence-for-in-house-lawyersFrom 1 April as an in house solicitor you will - in common with your private practice counterparts - have a decision to make regarding your 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 the SRA’s new “continuing competence” regime.

The indications are that a sizeable proportion of your colleagues are 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 adapting to the new learning culture 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 end of the mandatory 16 hours target

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 this has been generally well received by those private practice solicitors who may have struggled to accommodate learning within a culture emphasizing billable hours, the in house community appears more ambivalent. A survey conducted by the Commerce & Industry Group among its membership last autumn revealed that almost a fifth of respondents felt that their organization’s attitude to their taking external courses would definitely change and that it may become even harder to obtain budget sign off without the mandatory requirement to complete 16 hours. The likely result of this is that you may become even more reliant on free training provided by law firms, as informing your employer that you need funding to attend an off-site course to ensure that you can continue to provide a proper standard of service may not sound as compelling.

The end of accredited training

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 needs.

The new “competence statement”

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 and whose members need to complete as much development activity as they feel they need to remain competent in their role without stipulating a set 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 and, given the tight timescale for roll out, any changes to the final version are likely to be minor. The statement groups the abilities and attributes that competent solicitors should display under four main headings:

  1. Ethics, professionalism and judgement
  2. Technical legal practice
  3. Managing yourself and your own work
  4. Working with other people

With the statement applying to all members of the profession – regardless of what stage of your career you have reached or the type of entity within which you operate – it is necessarily generic in its approach. However, it does appear to have had reasonable input from the in house community with the SRA stating that 22% of the 1,070 solicitors who were surveyed for their views on the draft version prior to the consultation being issued came from the employed sector.

The competence statement is intended to act as benchmark against which you must assess your own performance and identify any areas for improvement. Having done so, you are then required to devise and implement a training plan to address these deficiencies.

Making your choice

If you want to move to the continuing competence model from April, you simply need to choose to do so – there’s no requirement to inform either your employer or 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 you should demonstrate that you have met the standards set out in the statement and how you should document the steps that you have gone through in developing and implementing your individual training plan.

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. In the C&I Group survey mentioned earlier,  a majority (62%) of respondents said that they would prefer to receive their training via different delivery methods in the future with over half (55%) citing their preferred training medium as being podcasts or webinars.

LexisNexis is already seeking to meet this demand by running a series of webinars  during 2015 specifically aimed at in house counsel and covering topics ranging from drafting effective commercial contracts to optimizing your relationship with law firms.

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About the author:
Stephen has 25 years’ experience in the legal information and training business and, prior to joining LexisNexis in November 2014, launched a range of e-learning solutions for the Law Society. His arrival coincides with a period of transformation in the regulation of legal CPD and   he is excited at the prospect of ensuring that LexisNexis’ professional learning portfolio develops to meet practitioners’ changing needs.