With a change in the continuous professional development regime on the horizon, Jo Large discusses BT’s approach to implementation

At BT, we value continuous development and, as a result, we welcomed the more flexible and intuitive approach to learning for UK-qualified (England and Wales) solicitors proposed by the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority (SRA).

There are currently over 350 lawyers in BT, of which approximately 150 qualified in England and Wales. They have specialisms such as employment law, litigation, commercial law, corporate law and property law – in fact most of the areas of expertise that you would expect from a large, global in-house team.

While our main focus was ensuring that we adopted the changes in the best interests of England and Wales-qualified solicitors, we also considered the department-wide ramifications. We have solicitors in every region of the world and we also wanted to make sure that any changes we might make —such as alterations to central learning platforms — wouldn’t advantage solicitors qualified in one jurisdiction more than others.

‘On-the-job’ learning

One of the benefits of being part of a large organisation is taking advantage of company-wide initiatives. Following extensive research into learning practice, BT introduced a more flexible and reflective approach to learning across the whole organisation - which bears many similarities to the SRA’s recommendations.

The central tenet of this new approach is the understanding that over two-thirds of our learning takes place while we are doing our job. Recent research shows that we continually teach and learn from one another, through day-to-day conversations and coaching - such as practical tips from a colleague or searching online to find an answer. The research also identified that attending formal training courses only accounts for only one in ten effective learning experiences.

BT’s legal team has broadened its approach to learning as part of this larger sea change within the organisation. For example, the team runs its own mentoring and coaching schemes. We also offer secondments and opportunities for solicitors to become involved with pro bono work. We are beginning to actively share learning and experiences via internal social media tools - and are using these platforms to work with other teams outside of legal.

These experiences provide the right context for us to introduce the changes mandated by the SRA - but to fully adopt the SRA’s recommendations we realised that we would need to hold a broad-ranging review looking at our existing systems, processes and opportunities for learning.

Deciding where responsibility lies

We considered lots of different aspects when moving to the new approach. We took time to consider how our existing learning management and HR systems and processes would fit with a more flexible approach to recording learning and development.

We decided early on that we would not move to the new approach before November 2016 to give us enough time to fully understand how the changes would affect the way we work.

Another discussion point was whether we had the right learning interventions and coaching framework in place to support a less structured approach to learning. Would people be proactive in seeking out learning opportunities linked to professional competence if not mandated to do so?

Under the new approach the responsibility for continuous development is placed squarely with the solicitor — but what did that mean for our bulk renewal of practising certificates? What level of oversight did we need to maintain an employer to help the bulk renewal process to run smoothly?

A softly, softly approach

We concluded that when we opt in to the new approach in November we will fully embrace it. We are recommending that solicitors use the development plan and record templates proposed by the SRA, although we are not mandating it. We will remove totally the requirement to undertake a set number of hours of CPD.

We will offer coaching and support for solicitors, including knowledge calls and surgeries on the new approach. We will also offer tailored sessions on reflective practice and other aspects of continuous development. We are also setting up a website to share best practice and to offer guidance on each step of the new process.

We will ask line managers to review development plans with individuals as part of ongoing development conversations, and we will offer additional coaching for line managers who aren’t themselves solicitors.

At this stage we won’t integrate development plans and records with our online HR performance management system, which also holds an individual’s development goals. This is mainly because of timing as the HR performance review cycle ties in with the financial year.

We also did not want to propose that solicitors in one jurisdiction use a central system for tracking continuous development when this may not be available or appropriate for those qualified in other jurisdictions.

Solicitors may have the same goals in both their development plan and their HR development goals, but it will be down to individuals to decide how they choose to map and record their own development across these two separate requirements.

The new approach and bulk renewal

We were unclear initially about whether we would be able to retain our bulk renewal of practising certificates. Previously we had checked solicitors’ records for completeness to ensure that people had fulfilled the 16 hours obligation and attended accredited training courses, whereas the new approach permits records to be kept in a less structured way. We would just be asking people to sign the annual declaration without evidence and, in theory, could be signing off the practising certificate of someone who was not competent.

Based on guidance available on the Law Society’s website – specifically the FAQ ‘What happens if a firm decides a solicitor has not reached that firm’s required standard of competence?’ - we were satisfied that all we would now require from our solicitors was visibility of their annual declaration to say that they had identified and addressed their learning needs. We would not seek further proof, such as submission of training records, but would be satisfied that any issues would be addressed as part of dialogue with line managers. We are considering automating the annual declaration via our existing learning management system.

We see the first year as an experiment and will tweak our approach depending on the feedback we receive from our solicitors. We will run some focus groups and continue to learn from our panel firms, peers and other regimes already adopting a more flexible approach.

We are committed to making the approach work well for our solicitors and we will support them as they identify and explore which learning and development options are right for them.