Fiona du Feu discusses the benefits of reflective practice
The start of the new practising certificate year is an ideal time for reflection. In my auditing work, I’m often told that keeping up to date with continuing professional development (CPD) is not high on most lawyers’ to-do lists, competing as it does with fee-earning work, client development, practice management and having a life outside work. Typically, records will simply list the date and title of courses attended. If this sounds familiar, keep reading.
I’m here to bang the drum for reflective practice. There’s nothing new about competency or, indeed, the requirement to reflect – it’s been in place since 2015, after all. It’s part of delivering competent legal services and meeting our regulatory obligations. And yet, eight years on, I’m not sure we’ve harnessed the potential of reflective practice.
What is reflective practice?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) guidance on continuing competence states that: “Reflection is thinking about the challenges and quality of your practice so you can meet your competence requirements. These are to:
- accurately evaluate your strengths and weaknesses in relation to the demands of your work, and
- identify the learning and development needs you need to address to maintain your competence and provide high standards of service”.
Clear enough. Or is it? There’s no
SRA-prescribed format for reflection – it’s a concept, not a recipe. This lack of certainty might add to the time-poor challenge, but it shouldn’t. There are some suggestions in the guidance, but reflection is thinking, after all, which lawyers do superbly well. And it’s not optional. It’s the reflecting part that enables a solicitor to meet their competence requirements.
What makes a lawyer competent?
Reflective practice starts with the SRA’s Statement of solicitor competence (SSC), which lists the abilities and skills that constitute competence. And it’s a high bar.
What makes any lawyer competent will be unique to them. This depends, says the SRA, on career trajectory: “the CPD needs of a 30-year qualified partner holding a management position in a global law firm will be very different to those of a two-year qualified conveyancing solicitor in a high street practice which will be different again to the needs of a five-year qualified local authority lawyer working on child protection matters.”
It’s also shaped by workplace culture and expectations. Large organisations have centralised training programmes as part of highly developed appraisal and career progression systems, which dictate the form and content of learning and development for their lawyers. In small firms, though, training tends to be more ad hoc and individual-led. Even so, every solicitor must decide for themselves what their competency profile is, bearing in mind that it’s never static.
Not a one-off event
Reflection implicitly suggests that competency is not a one-time event. The importance of ongoing evaluation is made clear in section A2 of the SSC, which requires solicitors to: “Maintain the level of competence and legal knowledge needed to practise effectively, taking into account changes in their role and/or practice context and developments in the law, including:
- taking responsibility for personal learning and development
- reflecting on and learning from practice and learning from other people
- accurately evaluating their strengths and limitations in relation to the demands of their work.”
This section expects solicitors to know their own competence boundaries and stay within them. The SSC stresses that competence is much broader than an encyclopaedic knowledge of technical law, admirable though that is. It encompasses ethics, communications, service, relationships, respect, integrity and professional courtesy. Implicit within competency at all stages of a lawyer’s career is the concept of the rounded lawyer.
There is no Code of Conduct requirement to keep a training record or competency log. But the SRA’s first Annual assessment of continuing competence makes it clear that it expects to see such training records: “Some solicitors cannot demonstrate they have reflected on their practice and addressed identified learning and development needs.” Crucially, “we could not be certain from many of the training records we reviewed whether decisions about the learning and development undertaken had been informed by the solicitor’s reflection on their practice. Their records did not include the reasons for the choices made.”
So, if you don’t have written evidence – based on documented reflection – of how you chose your training and development activities, you will struggle to satisfy the SRA.
Is there a template competency record?
Yes, the SRA has its own template. This has a section for reflection, then a plan and, finally, a record. Reflection is the key element – it should drive the entire process.
My view is that any such document should be treated as cumulative. The notion that you should start a new one each year is a legacy from the days of staying awake through 16 hours’ worth of box-ticking CPD events. The value is in the accumulation of evidence over time, so do not discard it lightly. Call me cautious, but my competency file goes back eight years.
‘It doesn’t apply to me, I’m an experienced lawyer’
Let’s scotch that myth. The SRA points out: “some senior solicitors felt that, given their seniority, they did not need to regularly reflect on their practice and address identified learning and development needs.” But all solicitors must make the annual competency declaration, stating that they have reflected on their practice and addressed their identified learning and development needs, so the danger of misleading the regulator is self-evident.
While we may feel we have perfect command of our work area, there is always something new to learn. The SRA’s threshold standard shows this neatly – anyone at Level 5 must still work to maintain that knowledge, responding to changes not only in their field but also in any leadership role. A newly qualified lawyer, by contrast, will focus on technical legal skills rather than advanced leadership and management skills.
What skills does reflective practice need?
Reflection takes self-awareness, determination and humility. The SRA’s Reflect and identify guidance has a list of prompt questions, which can be summarised as: what do I need / want to get better at? Not an easy question. Nevertheless, willingness to spot gaps or acknowledge areas of weakness is a key part of the self-reflection dialogue.
Reflective learning as a cycle
Put simply, reflective learning is a method of reviewing performance by asking key questions:
- What worked well?
- What went wrong and why?
- What needs to be done differently?
- What have I learnt?
It’s a cycle, not a linear process. It ensures mistakes are not repeated, assumptions are questioned, bad habits are identified, performance is objectively scrutinised and any tendency towards complacency is properly challenged.
This might hurt
Lawyers excel at evaluation, scrutiny and analysis. We might struggle with the acknowledgment of failure, but this is essential to drive change. Repeating mistakes does not make a better lawyer, and practice does not always make perfect. It’s the intentional application of objective evaluation that is the key to driving improvement. As the philosopher John Dewey put it: “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”
How will you know you’re doing better?
Again, it will take humility and courage. We can only know if we’re better lawyers by actively inviting (and then being open to listen to) feedback, which may come from clients, peers, external experts and colleagues. It will be both positive and negative. With negative feedback (like a client complaint), the reflection should show how this helped identify a weakness in, say, client communication skills, and how that realisation led to a defined action plan for improvement.
When and how often should you reflect?
The SRA guidance is not prescriptive: “Reflection should … be completed on a regular, ongoing basis so that you can identify learning and development needs as they arise.” So, it depends. Unless your organisation prescribes how they want it done, it’s up to you to achieve a workable method. Reflection should occur often enough to be a meaningful exercise – doing it annually (typically, just before practising certificate renewal) is insufficient. And it should be systematic, planned and regular, since the whole purpose is to guide your future career, not just tick a box.
I particularly like two approaches observed during my audit work. The monthly slot method involves a recurring diary entry that makes you take 15 minutes to ponder / record what you learned in the last month. It takes discipline, but with practice, it can be a painless way to summarise how you’ve become a better lawyer. A development activity does not need to be expensive or even externally delivered, you might simply reflect on how an article you read on reflective practice helped frame your training needs.
An end-of-case review is also a powerful tool, and one that works particularly well for complex transactional matters. Here, the lawyer reviews the completed case from a risk perspective, as part of a file-closing analysis:
- What worked well?
- What didn’t?
- Were any gaps or weaknesses in procedure revealed?
- Was the client unhappy and, if so, why?
- Were there any gaps in knowledge?
- What did we learn?
This is effective when completed individually but also when discussed in a team. Holding open discussions is a good way of normalising reflective practice, as is having a slot in team meetings where each member offers a snapshot of what they’ve learned since the last meeting and how it’s improved their practice.
ABC – always be curious
It’s not always about plugging gaps. The SRA guidance puts it this way: “It’s important to remember that your learning and development needs can be about building strengths and meeting goals as well as addressing weaknesses. An example could be identifying a need to train for the higher rights of audience qualification, because you received positive feedback about the quality of your advocacy and want to focus on that area of your practice.”
I like to see it as an opportunity to display (you might even say boast about) my insatiable curiosity. I prioritise my learning by asking ‘What am I curious about this month?’ and then ‘How will knowing that help me?’ There’s always going to be more to learn than can ever be learnt, of course, but it’s a question of clearly demonstrating why you focused on that particular activity.
Are you ready?
With the current regulatory focus on competency and the SRA’s announcement of a thematic review of anti-money laundering training within firms, scrutiny is increasing. Not having comprehensive competency records that make it clear why you did what you did will feel very exposed.
My lever arch file and I are ready.