Under the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) new approach to continuing competence, from 1 November 2016 all solicitors will be required to plan their own learning and development activities to maintain or reach the necessary skill levels required to fulfil their professional roles to the standards expected. This replaces the old system that required solicitors to complete a minimum number of continuing professional development (CPD) hours each year.
The new regime requires each solicitor, as part of the practising certificate renewal exercise, to make an annual declaration that he has reflected on his practice and addressed any identified learning and development needs. The first step is for solicitors to self-assess their competence to practise, identify what desired behaviours are relevant to their work and translate these into developmental goals.
The SMARTER goals
All in-house lawyers should aspire to be a little SMARTER, for these are the goals that enhance personal performance, team effectiveness and organisational impact:
- Self-aware. This means being able to recognise personal strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, values, attitudes, motivations and emotions and to understand how these are perceived by others.
- Motivated. This means being able to find the inspiration necessary to develop and sustain high performance for oneself and others.
- Adaptable. This means being able to respond agilely and effectively to new and changed conditions, whether in legal service delivery or the organisation generally and to evolve to meet organisational needs.
- Resilient. This means being able to cope with unexpected challenges and to survive or recover quickly from pressures, setbacks or other situations which impact performance.
- Team-focused. This means being able to apply professional knowledge and skills in ways that add value to the organisation as a whole and to work collaboratively with others to promote understanding and efficiency.
- Emotionally engaged. This means being able to perceive, understand, express and manage emotions in oneself and others to impact and influence outcomes and achieve personal, team or organisational goals.
- Relatable. This means being able to establish, build and maintain connections with others and be responsive, accessible, approachable and understandable to others.
Designing an action plan
Having established what developmental goals are necessary to meet the required standards, solicitors will then need to identify what support or action is required and allocate and prioritise time and resources to achieve that action. This information should be recorded on a development plan, which may include the following:
- What actions need to be taken, and why.
- How important each action is, in order of priority.
- When each action needs to be completed, for example in three, six or 12 months’ time.
- What specific activities will be necessary to complete each action.
- Whether any support or additional resources will be required.
- Whether there are any risks to implementing the actions.
The SRA has helpfully provided an example of a development plan template. However, there is no mandatory format. The implementation of these actions may include any one or more in combination of the following:
- A mentor.
- A role model.
- Developmental reading and individual study.
- Training courses, workshops and webinars.
- Regular performance review meetings and informal feedback.
- Personal coaching.
- Self-driven modifications in behaviours to form new habits, although this requires commitment and practice.
Of course, employers should be aware that all of this self-reflection, insight and understanding may also inspire some solicitors to seek a change of work environment.
Record and evaluate
As under the old system, the new competency regime requires solicitors to keep a record of their learning and development activity. This record will help to demonstrate that appropriate steps have been taken to maintain competence and to provide a proper standard of service.
Although the SRA has not prescribed a specific approach for each of the identified learning and development needs, it may be useful to record:
- When the activity was started and completed.
- Details of the activity.
- How the activity relates to ensuring competence.
- Lessons learned from the activity.
- How these new skills or knowledge have been or will be used.
- Whether the activity was effective or the extent to which the identified development needs have been met.
- Any further or follow-up action required, if the identified development needs have not been satisfied.
The SRA has also provided an example of a record template.
People skills are best learned in action through involvement, practice and experience. Identifying role models to aspire to, preferred behaviours to adopt, and daily affirmations or mantras to inspire and motivate are just some of the practical ways in which to grow self-confidence and build soft-skills competencies. Acting like a role model for others is another way of improving one’s own behaviour and choices, often without even realising.
In terms of developing skills to meet the effective communication and relationship building themes arising from the working with other people (competency C) framework, it is useful to plan activities to improve skills in areas such as active listening or assertiveness.
Workshops designed to play act scenarios, improvise situations, and replicate common workplace interactions by putting theory into practice and allowing participants to feel, react and respond for themselves, offer some of the more effective means of learning and retaining these new skills. Lawyers, tend to be highly literate and rely heavily on logic and reason. However, they need to become equally proficient at people skills and recognise and work with emotion. It may well make the practice of law more satisfying for both lawyers and their clients.
A welcome change
The SRA’s new approach to continuing competency is a very welcome change. It recognises the need for a more well-rounded skills base than traditional technical legal practice and enables lawyers to take a more active role in their own development by focusing their efforts on the things that really matter for better performance in their individual role, having regard to the unique circumstances within their organisation.
It will also hopefully encourage solicitors to develop and hone a holistic set of behaviours, skills and knowledge to ensure they remain the “right” person for their job and will be recognised, valued and rewarded accordingly. It is no longer about ticking the box on the magic minimum number of hours: rather, the new continuing competency regime requires planning, discipline, time and resolve and, above all, action.