Conferences on trial

Solicitors are turning to conferences for ongoing training. Leo Schulz finds out how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

From November next year compulsory ongoing education will be extended from newly-qualifieds to cover the entire legal profession in England and Wales, creating an enormous wave of new demand for training. The intention is to improve the quality and reliability of the legal profession. But it is questionable whether training providers are up to the challenge.

The Law Society's Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme at present requires solicitors to engage in 16 hours of accredited training in the first three years after qualification and 48 hours over the three following years. From 1 November 1998, all solicitors will have to undergo 48 hours of training over a three-year period, every three years.

Since senior solicitors need increasingly specialist information, available for the most part only from leading practitioners in their peer group, most of the training time will be absorbed by the commercial conference producers which target this area of the market, particularly established companies such as IBC, CLT, Hawksmere and Euroforum. With the average London conference costing £80 an hour per delegate, compulsory CPD will become a £100m-a-year market.

That is a lot of money and you might reasonably expect a lot in return. But this is not what lawyers feel they get. Most are sceptical about the quality of conferences while some are downright hostile. “It is a mixed bag,” says Nigel Bellis, partner in charge of training at Dickinson Dees in Newcastle.

Core training programmes at Dickinson Dees are handled inhouse, supplemented by correspondence courses such as those run by Practical Law for Companies (PLC). It does not subscribe either to Legal Network TV (LNTV) or to TV Education network (TEN), which Bellis considers insufficiently oriented towards commercial firms. The firm's conference budget, used mainly by more senior practitioners, is set at the beginning of the year and individual departments decide their own take-up. Bellis vets attendance and evaluates what each conference has been worth, not least as part of the firm's application for Investors In People accreditation.

Bellis says the main problem with conferences is what he calls “pitch”. “The quality of the speakers can be markedly different within the conference. Also, the Law Society does not give the providers enough guidance. You often find the spread of knowledge is too wide, and yet it can be too complicated for someone starting off.”

“We do go to the big glossy ones,” says Tony Summers, senior partner at Weightmans in Liverpool. “But we go to be seen, to see who is there and to pick up market information. We also go to conferences that are not about law as such but to learn about our clients' business.”

Summers agrees with Bellis that the quality of the speakers can be erratic. “The content can be a disappointment,” he says. “You often learn nothing new. At one recent conference, two speakers did not turn up and only two of the six were worth listening to.”

Weightmans organises much of its own training needs inhouse, including Law Society accredited seminars and weekly lectures. But Summers points out that this is not an option for smaller firms, which are likely to find it hard to identify suitable external courses.

At £500 to £600 a day, the cost of conferences is a constant complaint, as is the fact that they are often too long. But value for money is the key. “One that is expensive actually comes out quite well,” says Fiona Steadman, director of training at London practice Manches & Co. “But we are very careful. We only go to conferences which are going to be of specific use.”

The in-house legal market is harder to please, given that its external advisers are usually more than willing to provide tailor-made and time-effective training free of charge.

“We subscribe to Central Law Training,” says Stuart McFarlane, head of legal at Yorkshire Water. “It caters for a fairly broad mix of disciplines, which suits the broad range of specialisms in the department.”

Yorkshire Water also subscribes to TEN, which McFarlane says is useful for those who do not need to accumulate CPD points. “We are selective on conferences and some are disappointing. IBC have done some that are more specialised on the water industry. Networking is an important aspect.”

Robert Herga, head of legal at BAA, takes a harder line, preferring seminars with outside advisers. “We have moved against conferences on grounds of cost. They are expensive. We have found that lawyers' courses are shorter. They are consistently of good quality, and they are free.”

Sue Eccleston, manager of professional development at the Law Society, claims the society is aware of the problem of quality. Questionnaires are regularly sent to those who have attended accredited conferences and people are sometimes sent to conferences to check them out at first hand. “It is an issue we are addressing,” she says.

But conferences can yield pleasant surprises. Summers went on a management training course and liked it so much he hired the speaker, Martin Read, as his chief executive.