When the UK began its first national lockdown in March last year, it is fair to say for many law firms continuing professional development (CPD) was not a priority.
Emma Pearmaine is managing director of Ridley & Hall Solicitors, a five-partner firm with offices in Leeds, Huddersfield and Pontefract.
“We had staff furloughed and others under emergency working from home arrangements. CPD was not on the list of urgent things for the first few months.
“By the summer, when it was obvious that working from home was going to be long-term, then we made plans.”
CPD for solicitors was transformed in November 2016 with the end of compulsory minimum hours of training and the arrival of an outcomes-focused approach, designed to give law firms and solicitors more responsibility and flexibility in managing their training.
Ms Pearmaine, a former president of Leeds Law Society, said: “The new system provides more flexibility to open up different perspectives and provide for other skills, but the biggest challenge is discipline.
“We’ve tackled it by using the appraisal process and learning and development plans to identify an individual’s needs and how to meet them.”
Rita McGucken, head of learning and development at national firm Simpson Millar, said outcomes-focused CPD had “gone very well” in the sense that it made lawyers “sit down and plan their training needs and knowledge gaps as part of the appraisal process”.
Ms McGucken said it made law firms “think harder about the value of content and its relevance, and include soft skills.”
An online survey of 463 law firms and solicitors by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in July 2019 found that 40% were doing more professional training under the new regime, while 52% were “doing about the same amount”.
A majority (54%) said the introduction of the competence and threshold statements had made it easier to maintain skills, while only 10% said the competence of solicitors had declined.
However, the Legal Services Board (LSB) is not satisfied. Earlier this year the LSB said it would be pushing ahead with additional continuing competence checks for lawyers in a report on responses to its call for evidence on the issue.
The LSB said there was “evidence that legal regulators have robust measures in place” to ensure lawyers were competent when entering their branch of the profession, but there were “fewer measures for checking legal professionals’ competence post-qualification, which is unusual compared with other sectors”.
Limitations with CPD models included “lack of independent verification of the relevance or quality” of activities and “reliance on individuals” to identify their own learning and development needs.
The next step is for the LSB to hold pre-consultation workshops and then launch a full consultation on continuing competence later this year.
Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the SRA, commented: “It is important we get the balance right to make sure the public are appropriately protected, and our approach is appropriately targeted.
“If we are to introduce additional requirements − that could push the cost of legal services up − we need to be sure there is a problem that any additional requirements can help with.
“There are signs that a more reflective approach to competence has been positive. Law firms have said they are keeping better tabs on their training needs, and that the new approach has given them more room to address skills gaps.”
Ms Brannan said the SRA would be particularly looking at “high risk, high stakes areas of work where clients can be particularly vulnerable”, such as advocacy, where the regulator was currently reviewing practitioners’ records in the youth courts.
“We are also getting additional feedback from the profession to further understand how solicitors are addressing their competence requirements. This includes looking at how legal training and development needs vary at different stages in a solicitor’s careers, as well as exploring any impacts the pandemic has had.”
A recent survey found that two-thirds of law firms say the increase in digital learning as a result of the pandemic will continue. But a quarter of firms said their staff have “no time” for legal training during the working day, meaning it had to be done in their own time or not at all.
The new CPD regime requires all solicitors to make an annual declaration to the SRA that they have reflected, identified and addressed their learning and development needs when applying for their Practising Certificates.
Ms Pearmaine said she “made a point” of checking this when she signed off PC applications, but she said it was a “big ask” for law firms and she was not convinced that every firm did it.
Ms McGucken pointed to the quality reviews Simpson Millar carried out as part of its multiple accreditations, such as Lexcel and the Conveyancing Quality Scheme. “These are not tick-box exercises for us.”
Ms McGucken said her firm had a “huge online content library” for training purposes which put the firm “in a good position” before the pandemic struck.
She said that one of the positive impacts of the pandemic on law firms was the way it had “opened up” training.
“A lot of training providers have split their sessions up into half-days or a couple of hours. You learn much more that way.”
Ms McGucken said an additional advantage of shorter sessions was that it gave lawyers time to put what they had learned into practice before continuing.
“Bitesize learning is more effective than a full-day data dump and I hope we can continue with that.”
Ms McGucken said that at Simpson Millar lawyers could go to ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, which were delivered over Teams by the firm’s own lawyers. Webinars could be paused to allow solicitors to share their experiences.
The firm also used external legal training providers and chambers to deliver CPD for solicitors which could, with their permission, be recorded and added to the learning management system.
Generally Ms McGucken said the pandemic had made things easier for a national firm to come together online for training. However, she said the law firm did not want to lose face-to-face training, with its “fantastic interactivity” altogether.
She said lawyers could “get all the theory done” before a live session began, with role plays or brainstorming that could not be replicated online. “When you’re together it’s easier for people to interrupt each other without being rude.”
Ms McGucken said what young lawyers missed by not being in the office during the pandemic was “listening to conversations around them and learning by osmosis”.
She went on: “Because this process is not happening naturally, we must plan for it. You should be proactive as a manager in thinking of ways to include young lawyers and have plenty of team meetings.
“And, as a less experienced lawyer, you should be curious and proactive, and not afraid to reach out.”
Ms Pearmaine said delivering professional training had become easier for Ridley & Hall during the pandemic “because everyone expects training to be delivered remotely”.
She said there were still “discussion forums” where lawyers could share experiences because training providers organised workshops during presentations or held question and answer sessions at the end.
“The biggest challenge is for our younger lawyers. It requires forward planning and thought to make sure what used to happen still happens.”
Ms Pearmaine gave the example of arranging for a young lawyer to listen to a phone call between a senior lawyer and client, even though they were not speaking.
She said half the staff at Ridley & Hall were already working in the office some of the time, and a small number permanently.
Ms Pearmaine added that the transition to more normal routine, which was scheduled for September, would be based on individual consultations with lawyers and one of the requirements would be learning and development.