Four in ten law firms are doing more professional training following the end of the hours-based approach, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has found.
However, the regulator has identified 35 solicitors who “consistently” tell it they have not met their learning and development needs and do not explain why.
To assess the approach introduced in 2016 – now called ‘continuing competence’ – the SRA conducted an online survey of 463 law firms and solicitors, and a thematic review of 20 law firms.
It found that 52% of solicitors were “doing about the same amount” of professional training. A further 40% were doing more and the rest doing less.
Solicitors said the new approach has helped them to better identify their learning and development needs, meaning training had become “more relevant and targeted”.
A majority (54%) said the introduction of the competence and threshold statements had made it easier to maintain skills, while 10% said the competence of solicitors had declined – but 62% disagreed with this.
Though 43% of solicitors did not express an opinion on whether the changes had improved competence, 39% said it had.
A majority (55%) of the firms sampled in the thematic review felt that the quality of their work had improved.
Most firms also said they had made cost savings because of the greater flexibility, focusing training on specific roles and teams, and partnering with other firms and organisations.
The most popular internal training methods were ‘reading, research and discussion’ (75%), informal/on the job training (69%) and peer-to-peer learning (58%), with training courses on specific topics/areas of law (70%), e-learning and webinars (59%) and conferences/events (58%) the main external methods.
The continuing competence regime requires all solicitors to make an annual declaration to the SRA that they have reflected, identified and addressed their learning and development needs.
The proportion saying they had not done that – mostly those who were not practising, or on maternity leave or sick leave – has fallen from 3% to 0.7% over the three years since its introduction.
However, the single largest group saying ‘no’ were solicitors working overseas, who previously did not need to complete CPD. The SRA stressed that they needed to comply with the new regime.
The regulator has also identified 35 solicitors who have consistently returned a negative declaration without a valid reason since the introduction of continuing competence.
SRA said it would “engage” with them to seek an explanation, but warned: “If we find that there has been wilful non-compliance with our obligations of our approach, we may decide to take regulatory action.”
The SRA said its in-depth review of 20 firms found a “mixed picture” in the way solicitors recorded their training.
“Some records were comprehensive and set out how the learning and development need was identified, how it had been addressed and whether this process had identified any further needs.
“However, others were simply a record of training undertaken and did not show how learning and development was identified or addressed…
“We recommend that solicitors not using a learning and development record or those that contain basic information consider how they can improve their current learning and development recording arrangements.”
The SRA said eight of the 20 law firms involved in its in-depth review had retained an hours-based approach, with targets ranging from 15 hours per year to 104 hours.
The regulator said “the most common challenge identified by solicitors” was managing time pressures.
“Only half of the firms we spoke to as part of our thematic review said they made a regular allowance of time for solicitors to maintain competence, preferring to arrange training on an ad hoc basis.”
The SRA concluded: “As we said, the new approach is still relatively new and as a result it is too early to any draw concrete conclusions as to whether there has been a change in the standard and competence of solicitors.
“But feedback from solicitors and law firms demonstrates that they are embracing our approach to continuing competence and moving away from simply accumulating hours.”
Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, commented: “It’s good to hear that law firms are saying they are keeping better tabs on their training needs, and that the new approach has given them more room to address skills gaps.”