When undertaking CPD, not all practice makes perfect

Guest blog posted by Oliver Hanmer, director of supervision at the Bar Standards Board

Hanmer: less convinced that a prescriptive system adds much value

Hanmer: less convinced that a prescriptive system adds much value

Many at the Bar and beyond will be familiar with the ‘10,000 hours’ theory – put forth by Swedish psychologist K Anders Ericsson and further propagated by popular writer Malcolm Gladwell. That is: the formula for success, in any field, is 10,000 hours of practice.

Integral to this, but perhaps less well known, is the notion that such practice needs to be deliberate – carefully structured and executed in a way that will have the greatest results for performance. In other words, quality matters just as much as, if not more than, quantity.

For advocates, continuing professional development (CPD) is designed to provide “a structured approach to learning to help ensure high standards in a barrister’s current or anticipated professional practice”. CPD is essential to expertise. Or at least it should be.

At present, a barrister with more than three years of practising experience must complete 12 hours of CPD every year. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) must accredit four of these. However, increasingly, we are less and less convinced that this prescriptive system adds much value to the profession and the clients it serves.

Instead, it leads to, as Friedman et al said, “people scrambling to fulfil their CPD requirements by taking whatever courses or attending whatever events are available and convenient, rather than activities that will genuinely support their competence and development”. We are concerned that barristers’ CPD choices are not always designed to enhance or maintain standards, but are selected to satisfy our set number of hours.

And so we are proposing something different: a new approach to CPD – one which will champion choice and deliberate practice. It will encourage barristers to take ownership of their own professional learning and development.

As part of our Future Bar Training programme, we intend to replace the CPD programme for barristers with more than three years’ experience (known as the Established Practitioners Programme (EPP)) and end the mandatory number of hours that practitioners must complete annually.

As outlined in our consultation paper launched this week, we want to introduce a new scheme that gives experienced barristers the freedom to chart their own learning and development. It will enable them to decide on the type, range, and volume of CPD they should do, as it relates to their areas of practice. This means more autonomy for barristers to identify, pursue, and fulfil their training needs.

But it also means more flexibility for us to focus our efforts where they are really needed. Current monitoring systems record that only a small minority of barristers (around 3-5%) do not fully comply with their CPD obligations each year. Persistent or blatant breaches will, of course, be taken very seriously, but we want to move away from using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and referring minor CPD offences to enforcement action.

Individuals would continue to be responsible for complying with the new regime. But it would allow us to avoid unnecessarily escalating minor failures to comply with CPD requirements and focus more on those barristers we believe represent a real risk to the public by not keeping their training up-to-date.

Under the system proposed, barristers would still have to maintain a continuous, up-to-date, and annual record of their CPD activities. They would need to demonstrate that these are relevant to current or future practice; they should be able to explain how their CPD has contributed to the quality of their personal development. They would also need to maintain their own CPD records, via an online system.

The old-fashioned style of regulation, where we take enforcement action after the issue has already happened, is becoming outdated and replaced by a more modern, collaborative way of regulating. In this way, we are striving to use supervision and constructive engagement to resolve failures to comply with our rules. Enforcement action is a last resort for serious or persistent offences.

The proposals as they are currently presented only refer to the EPP and not the New Practitioner Programme (NPP) – for barristers with less than three years of practising experience. We believe that a structured and planned approach to NPP is the most effective way of ensuring that barristers attain necessary standards at the start of their careers.

Not all practice makes perfect. We think what matters is that practice and learning be deliberately undertaken, with care and consideration, so as to produce the greatest returns in terms of improved knowledge, skills, and performance. This is not just in the barristers’ interests; it is in their clients’ too.

Those are our views. Now we want to hear from others on whether they think we have got it right. I would urge you to please read, respond to, and share our ideas in this consultation. It closes on 2 September 2015.


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