To be continued…

The bar’s continuing professional development requirements have been received with resignation by practitioners. Peter Bennett reports on developments

The bar was probably the last major profession to introduce compulsory continuing professional development (CPD) for its members. The phased introduction ended in 2005 when every barrister, including the million a year-plus commercial silks, were required to obtain their 12 hours’ CPD.

Compliance has so far been 100 per cent. How could it be any other way when the ultimate sanction of an appearance before the disciplinary committee awaits those who fail to provide their return by the 31 January deadline. The most senior barristers will face their first test in January 2006, but no one expects any martyrs to individualism, although there may need to be a few 31 December training courses laid on by chambers and a few extended deadlines provided by the Bar Council.

Resignation is probably the best description of the general feeling towards the introduction of compulsory CPD by the practising bar. However, that is followed by some, perhaps grudging, acceptance that it does force barristers to keep up to date, particularly in the non-core areas to their own practice. “I only attended to get my CPD, but I actually found the seminar interesting” is a common reaction.

This article will remind barristers of the requirements, draw out some of the impacts of CPD on those requirements and the training industry and, finally, make some suggestions to the Bar Council on how it could streamline its overbureaucratic management of the CPD regime.

The requirements

Twelve hours of CPD are required each year, of which four must be accredited. Accredited CPD is training that has been approved in advance by the Bar Council. The CPD hours can be attained by attendance at training seminars, giving seminars, writing law books or articles or watching online or CD-Rom seminars, all of which have their own rules.

Impact on barristers

For most senior barristers it has been easy to achieve the CPD requirement – recording what they already undertake is sufficient. The bar has always provided a host of writers and seminar-givers, particularly for those in mid-career wishing to build their reputation. What the CPD regime has achieved, probably intentionally, is to encourage and reward that activity among those who were previously relying solely on their historic expertise. In a complex field such as law, total mastery of a narrow field becomes ever more dangerous unless the wider legal developments are recognised and understood.

Solicitors have noted an explosion of chambers offering the provision of seminars. Rather than being a response to carefully planned marketing strategies, this is at least due partly to the need for silks and juniors to achieve their CPD tallies. A two-hour seminar with notes provides four hours of CPD for the barrister.

The response from the training industry

The CPD requirement for solicitors has produced a whole industry of training providers offering tailored and very expensive events. In contrast, the CPD requirement for the bar has produced almost no commercial response.

While the bar is much smaller, there is still a demand for 120,000 training hours per year. If commercial solicitor seminars are a minimum of £50 per hour, that could mean a £6m spend. Apart from some low-cost internet-based offerings (“get your CPD online for £120”), demand has been non-existent due to barristers’ own efforts combined with the efforts of those specialist bars and circuits which offer low-cost, high-quality CPD events.

Bar Council and CPD – a lighter touch?

A number of chambers offer a large number of seminars for solicitors, and occasionally for accountants and surveyors. These sets know the CPD requirements for all three professions and the bar. All three professions have a much lighter regulatory regime than the Bar Council. Surveyors leave the decision on what is a CPD topic to their own members, who simply record their attendance on their annual return and have to justify their decision if challenged. The Law Society accredits organisations and has a random inspection regime of requesting feedback on their own form. An annual return from the accredited organisation simply records the number of events held during the year. The accredited organisation is responsible for keeping attendance registers and feedback forms. The nature of solicitor CPD will tend to be one accredited seminar providing between 50 and 100 solicitors with CPD.

In contrast, the Bar Council requires every accredited seminar to be registered two weeks in advance and every attendance sheet to be sent to the Bar Council after each event. When many accredited events feature a single barrister speaking to a solicitor audience, the administration to CPD ratio is out of all proportion. Barristers maintain their competitive advantage by low overheads and streamlined administration. For a large set very active in this field, the cost of compliance is high. To accredit 2,000 CPD hours with the Law Society has a negligible staff time cost, while accrediting just 200 CPD hours with the Bar Council has become a significant burden.

Peter Bennett is cheif executive of Maitland Chambers