The changes to continuing professional development will be mandatory from 1 November 2016. Nicola Jones and Jane Green-Armytage look at how firms are responding, and the pros and cons of adapting the old regime versus embracing a competency-based approach.

In case it had passed you by, from 1 November 2016, the CPD hour goes. Solicitors will instead make a ‘declaration of competence’ when applying for their practising certificate. Firms and individuals will need to be able to demonstrate, if required, that they have identified and addressed their learning needs in respect of a range of activities, which will give substance to their claim to be ‘competent’.

The regulations free up learning opportunities, while placing more emphasis on ensuring CPD is effective for both the individual and the organisation. The rationale for learning has shifted; firms now need to know not just what they spend their money on, but how investment in CPD contributes to overall ‘competence’. Just ticking a box will not cut it.

This change provides an excellent opportunity for law firms to review their learning strategy. Taking a strategic view makes business sense of reflective learning; evidence of the effectiveness of new knowledge, skills and behaviours demonstrates return on investment for learning. Providing the learning effort serves business need, it will have a real effect on the bottom line.

Options for law firms

It has been possible to move over to the new system for some time, though few have yet made the change. So how are firms that have done so tackling it?

Option 1: Adapting the hours-based approach

Some firms are taking an incremental approach by keeping CPD hours for the time being, at least for technical updates. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will only require evidence of competence to be produced if an allegation of incompetence is made, so sticking with the hours-based approach and ‘bolting on’ additional training is pragmatic, but there are risks. The old system will not be compliant with the new regime on its own for the following reasons.

The shift of emphasis to establishing ‘competence’ is unlikely to be addressed.
Evidence that learning need has been identified and addressed is required; unless that is already happening, change is necessary.
Sticking to CPD hours may mean firms miss out on the wide range of learning activities now recognised by the new regime.
‘Bolting on’ additional training is unlikely to be cost-effective if it is not part of a strategic approach to professional development.
This means that firms cannot simply continue recording CPD activities as hours. However, firms could take a hybrid approach, recording activities as hours, but broadening the range of activities, and describing how each supports ongoing competence under the SRA’s framework.

Option 2: Using the SRA’s competencies

The SRA competency framework provides a good starting point in defining what competence looks like, but it does not articulate the underlying behavioural indicators behind these competencies. The framework is also focused on technical activities and short on business-orientated skills. The risk is that the firm invests time and effort getting people on board with the SRA competencies, only to find that they do not reflect its business needs.

Drafting bespoke competencies, which both accord with the SRA’s requirements and work for the firm, makes sense. Including behavioural indicators will provide standards with which to measure: competency to practise; alignment of CPD to business strategy; and a mechanism to set expectations from recruitment onwards.

Relying on appraisals

Using appraisals to identify learning need is important, but may not be enough on its own. If people are being actively managed, conversations about performance, learning need and the implementation of new learning will be routine. Active people management also puts the firm in control of development, by giving managers the chance to gauge how performance relates to business goals.

Peer feedback is also an option, but it must always be undertaken in the expectation that action will result. If there is a lack of will to tackle any issues arising, then it can be positively unhelpful. Done well, it can really move people along, giving them clarity about how they are perceived and how they can take responsibility for their performance. It provides strong evidence of learning need, is an excellent way to establish the effectiveness of learning activity, and can provide real evidence of competence.

Survival of the fittest?

In essence, the SRA is inviting each firm to define its own version of competence. They have thrown the doors open on CPD, with the intention of allowing the market to determine which firms are most effective. Responses to this liberalisation of learning will vary. Some firms will do the minimum; some are tackling the process strategically. Perhaps both will be compliant. In the long term, it will be those most able to adapt to change which will survive

This article first appeared in the May 2016 Issue of the Law Management Section