Learning from cradle to grave

Martin Richardson looks at a shake-up of training which should lead to continual professional development for solicitors. Martin Richardson is professional development consultant at Berwin Leighton and vice-chair of the Legal Education and Training Group.

Lawyers do not like change, but there is plenty of it on the training front at the moment. The colleges and universities which provide the Legal Practice Course (LPC) are in the throes of introducing the revised syllabuses to their students. These new LPC graduates will be faced with a fresh Professional Skills Course (PSC) once their training contracts start; qualified solicitors are about to become subject to new Continuing Professional Development (CPD) regulations; and, to cap it all, we are only just over 12 months away from the date when the more senior members of the profession become subject to CPD.

The existing PSC involves 20 days training. “That means that our trainees have 42 rather than 22 days holiday this year,” complains the partner on the Clapham Omnibus. It is firms' dislike of the time trainees have to spend away from the desk that has been one of the main spurs to change. Thus the length of the course has been reduced to eight days compulsory face-to-face teaching, to which will be added four days of electives. This reduction in time will also cut the cost of the course.

The substance of the course will in future cover three main areas: financial and business skills; advocacy and communication skills; and ethics and client responsibilities. The electives as well as the compulsory core subjects must be tied to these areas of study, but there will be much greater flexibility for firms and external providers to make their own decisions about the content and the timing of the electives. This allows more freedom for the differing needs of trainees in the various areas of practice.

The new PSC format will come into effect from September 1998. It has been agreed by the Law Society's training committee after wide consultation and a resulting report produced by its review group.

The CPD scheme has been in place since 1992 and some form of compulsory continuing education has been part of Law Society regulations since 1985. Five years after the last review, the society has once again consulted the profession and others on a way forward to modernise the approach to CPD.

Two criticisms of the current scheme stand out. First, it is thought to be too complex. The rules, particularly those relating to the percentages of time allowable for various activities, require brilliant mathematical skills to work out. Second, it is said to be too inflexible. There are only a relatively limited number of activities that can count towards CPD hours excluding other useful methods of professional development.

These two criticisms are met by leaving only two figures in place – a minimum of 25 per cent of total hours for preparing, delivering and attending Law Society accredited courses, and a maximum of 75 per cent on all other activities. Further, the definition of “all other activities” is extended to cover almost any professional development activity apart from reading. In particular, non-accredited course attendance counts, as does training, using modern technological learning methods.

Further flexibility will be granted to firms which have quality standards in place such as the Investors in People certification. The CPD hourage regime, based on 16 hours a year, will remain as at present.

The procedure for validating these changes under the Courts and Legal Services Act is almost complete and November 1997 remains the target for their implementation.

One of the reasons for making CPD more flexible is to take account of the needs of the remainder of the profession who will be brought within its ambit on 1 November 1998.

It would not be appropriate to expect senior partners to undertake CPD designed for their junior colleagues. It would be appropriate to permit them to undertake, for example, non-accredited management education and training activities which would help them to improve the running of their practices.

It is interesting in this context that Manchester Business School has recently launched a modular MBA in legal practice management which has the potential to become the model for top-quality management training for senior lawyers.

All these changes contribute to an interlocking system of training and development starting with the CPE/undergraduate legal study through to the LPC followed by the PSC and the CPD during practice.

Training in its broadest sense will shortly be a cradle-to-the-grave activity, improving the profession overall.