Looking to the future for continuing competence

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10 March 2015

Posted by Peter Riddleston, head of learning, quality and development at Legal Futures Associate LawNet

Riddleston: great opportunity to establish a learning culture

Riddleston: great opportunity to establish a learning culture

The Legal Services Board has approved the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) proposals for changes to the CPD system, with hours-based CPD requirements for solicitors set to become a thing of the past. I believe this presents a great opportunity for the profession to raise the bar through a culture of learning, although it will demand a significant change in attitude for some.

Firms can opt in to the new system – known as ‘continuing competence’ – from 1 April 2015 before it becomes mandatory on 1 November 2016, ending the blanket requirement for solicitors to carry out 16 hours of CPD training each year.

Continuing competence represents quite a change. The key difference is that, rather than simply attending a series of legal update courses in October each year so as to tick the box, solicitors will need to consider their learning needs and plan their learning activity accordingly. Whilst many solicitors and their organisations already encourage this style of approach, for some a significant change in mindset will be needed – CPD certificates alone will no longer be enough to prove compliance.

Certainly, regarding continuing competence as optional will not be acceptable. Where a solicitor’s competence is called into question, a lack of ongoing learning may be considered an aggravating factor by the SRA. Also, solicitors will be required to make an annual declaration that they have considered and taken action to address their learning needs.

Some will no doubt argue against continuing competence, but for those firms that buy in to the new system, I think there is a great opportunity to establish a learning culture that improves standards. The SRA recently consulted on a draft competence statement which covered four key areas: ethics, professionalism and judgment; technical legal practice; managing yourself and your work; and working with other people.

More detail and guidance will be available from the SRA when it publishes a toolkit to assist with compliance next month, and this should help firms and individual solicitors to ensure that they are approaching continuing competence in the right way.

What is already clear is that there will be opportunities to carry out learning in a wide variety of ways and my discussions with LawNet members suggest this will be welcomed by many. Mentoring programmes and supervision could play a part and it will be possible to undertake learning in much smaller chunks, because of the shift away from an hours-based requirement. Reading a magazine article or listening to a 10-minute podcast, for example, could be a valuable contribution to addressing an identified learning need.

For individuals, it is vital that solicitors undertake a process of reflection to enable the identification of learning needs and then plan activity to address these. This process should be recorded, ideally with an evaluation of the success of the learning completed, to see if there any gaps or further needs.

Firms will need to think about their own systems. A good starting point would be to carry out a high-level learning needs analysis to identify any trends and areas that need to be addressed at firm-wide level. This should also provide a valuable structure to make it easier for individuals to consider their own needs.

Although the SRA has not published all of the detail, I have been working on reviewing and restructuring the LawNet CPD offering since the new approach was originally mooted. To me, the rationale for the new system appears sound and something I welcome.

Ultimately, one of the marks of the professional is to be well informed and highly knowledgeable about the issues affecting clients, as well as up-to-date on new working methods and skills.

Continuing competence will enable solicitors to target their learning to achieve this and demonstrate what they have done in a way that a file of CPD certificates could not.

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