Foundations for the future

With the Professional Skills Course (PSC) halfway through its first year, how do firms see it shaping up?

Many firms took the view that their trainees should complete the two examined modules – accounts and investment business – by the end of their first year, in case of failures at the first sitting. Initial experience with the accounts module has not been good.

There have been criticisms of the materials supplied by some commercial providers. Some firms feel strongly that trainees should not arrive in their firms with no understanding of the difference between, and operation of, client and office accounts.

The distance learning approach to accounts, which is a radical departure from the old Law Society Finals style of teaching, has made it harder for lawyers – traditionally numerate – to get the kind of intensive training they require.

At the moment, as we enter exam season, the jury is out. Already though, the Law Society has revised its regulations to enable firms to begin their accounts training in future in the first three months of the training contract. This could make the training less compressed.

There are some who have pressed the Law Society to return accounts to the LPC. This is likely to be reviewed, but could not be introduced before September 1996 because of current validation arrangements with LPC providers.

Investment business seems to have presented fewer problems, probably because it is less mathematical. There is concern in some quarters about teaching trainees how investment business is conducted when it is not the policy of many larger firms to do so.

Many firms are leaving the teaching of the third module, professional conduct, until trainees are in the final months of the training contract. Since this module effectively brings the compulsory Professional Development Course I into the contract from the first year post-qualification, it is not expected to cause any difficulties.

The two most valuable modules are advocacy and personal work management.

Advocacy in my firm consists of one day's introduction to oral communication and presentation skills, three days of civil and criminal litigation

advocacy training and one day of training on settlement negotiation and alternative dispute resolution. These provide a valuable introduction to the key skills for solicitor advocates.

Although relatively few of them will ever need to exercise the skills in practice, there are lessons to be learnt from advocacy training for other aspects of practice, such as case preparation, negotiation and presentation skills.

The other module, personal work management, is in some ways the most useful of all. It encompasses drafting, inter-personal skills, time management, client care, teamwork and use of IT.

In many firms this can be, and has been, successfully integrated into induction and practice area training throughout the training contract. It is an opportunity for trainees and firms to build on the skills training offered during the LPC and, indeed, to create a foundation for future skills and management training.

There are mixed views at this stage about the overall value of the PSC. On the positive side, it represents a step forward, in conjunction with the introduction of skills standards for on-the-job training, and for the training of trainees.

On the negative side, it represents a significant increase, in many firms, in the amount of hours trainees spend out of the office attending courses, which diminishes their exposure to client work and makes them less valuable to their principals. And, of course, all this training comes at a cost. It is likely that most firms are paying £1,000 per trainee for the PSC, a significant investment both for smaller firms anxious to contain the costs of recruiting and employing trainees, and larger firms with substantial numbers of trainees. Only time will tell whether the benefits of the PSC justify the cost.

The PSC has also begun to raise serious questions about how we train our trainees. Should there be more distance learning? Should we provide day release or sandwich courses? Should firms be required to bear the responsibility for training on subjects like accounts and investment business, which are arguably the responsibility of the profession's regulator?

What is clear is that the PSC has heralded a substantial period of change in the training and education provided for entrants to the profession. I doubt it will be the last word.

Richard King is head of education and training at Herbert Smith and chair of the Legal Education and Training Group.