Rethinking how training serves law firms' needs
Continuous learning reflects the complexity of today's legal services sector, says Nicola Jones
The passing of the CPD hour as a unit of learning is something of a non-event. Solicitors may have a notion that they will now need to demonstrate ‘competence to practise’, but as few yet know what that means, it is not making it to the top of the ‘urgent’ pile for many. There is almost a sense that solicitors have been relieved of the imperative to engage in continuous learning. This is ironic, because there has never been a time when engaging in new ways of working was more important to the legal sector.
In immediate terms, changes to the SRA Training Regulations have eliminated references to CPD hours with effect from 1 November 2016. As a knock-on effect, training providers will no longer be accredited – an honour which involved having to pay the SRA £300 for verification of hours spent at CPD events. These differences are slight and many solicitors are barely aware of the fact of changes to CPD at all. From now on, it’s safe to say that if a trainer offers you a code to verify your hours, they are behind the curve.
Given that the SRA plans to require evidence of learning only when incompetence is alleged, there is little incentive to get steamed up about the changes from a compliance point of view. Responsibility for being able to declare a solicitor ‘competent to practise’ is now effectively shared between the employer firm and the individual, which introduces a handy opportunity for each party to assume the other will be doing something sensible to address the situation. In fairness, many firms do seem to be introducing a new set of boxes to be ticked, just in case.
But the changes to CPD regulation are exciting and potentially radical. The value of taking a new approach to learning as part of the business of doing law is significant for two main reasons:
Firms are now at liberty to tailor learning to their own needs in ways not previously possible. This brings about a host of opportunities around aligning learning with business strategy and securing evidence of return on investment in ways which are usually largely overlooked; and
All sorts of learning activities are now recognised. Crucially, this opens the door to cutting-edge learning practices which focus on the resourcefulness of the learner in new ways. In a digital age it is essential to embrace possibilities of all kinds, in business and learning.
More than technical
Behind the changes to CPD regulation lies a fundamental and difficult question: why learn? Learning includes staying up to date. That is essential and it can be done in a variety of ways, from attending lectures to reading law journals.
However, for anyone engaged in leading a law firm at the moment, the question may give pause for thought. These days providing value to clients involves a host of skills and behaviours which include, but are not limited to, technical legal skills. Adaptability rules these days and that asks a lot of everyone engaged in any kind business.
For a long time learning in the legal sector has predominantly been on the ‘sheep-dip’ model: one-off training events in which participants are immersed in a topic for a short period. As long ago as the 19th century this approach to learning was understood to be short-sighted, as most people forget what they learn if they do not deploy their newfound knowledge or skills within a matter of days of acquiring it.
In fact, learning is iterative. We all need time to get to grips with ideas, practise new skills, see what works and what does not, and make choices about how to improve and try again. That learning cycle is the sort of thing the SRA wants to see captured as evidence of learning. It is not rocket science. Ideally, opportunities to learn, practise, and reflect will be built into learning programmes which use a mixture of delivery methods, such as online learning and face-to-face experiential learning and coaching, to help people develop the way they work day-to-day.
Perhaps the requirement to engage in continuous learning in a variety of ways reflects the increasing complexity of the legal sector itself. Just as once the work flowed in without too much difficulty, so once upon a time it was permissible to spend a day listening to someone speak for hours in the hope that you might be paying attention when they eventually said something useful. The learning agenda has opened up, just as the sector has. Now is a time to think hard and deeply about how learning serves legal businesses.
Nicola Jones is a director of Athena Professional