Law: No one can afford to fall behind

The Law Society is the first of the professional institutions to compel its members to update and develop their skills. By Philip Schofield
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It was once assumed that having completed your education and professional training, you were equipped to practise your craft for life. This may have been true when innovations were few and were introduced gradually. But this approach is grossly inadequate in today's climate of volatile change.

Knowledge and skills are rapidly outdated. If any professional workers fail to keep abreast of development in their field, they become a liability to their clients. Since the early Eighties it has been recognised that people must be given the chance to update their skills and knowledge.

Most know this updating process as Continuing Professional Development (CPD), although a few still prefer Continuing Professional Education (CPE). Initially, this was undertaken voluntarily, with the encouragement of professional institutions and support from employers. Many institutions, however, are setting down mandatory requirements for the amount of time given to CPD and approved types of learning activity.

The Law Society introduced a compulsory scheme in 1985, one of the first professional bodies to do so. The Engineering Council only started promoting voluntary CPD to its members in early 1991. The Law Society initially required only newly qualified solicitors to undertake CPD for their first three years after qualification. In 1990, however, all solicitors who had been admitted to the society from August 1987 had to take part in CPD for as long as they remained in legal practice or employment. Eighteen months ago, this was extended to anyone admitted since November 1982.

It was only in 1990 that the society grasped the nettle of imposing CPD on the older and more senior members of the profession. It was agreed that it had apply to the rest of the profession, but not until November 1998.

Not all solicitors approve of the scheme. In an explanatory information pack published last year, 10 years after it introduced compulsory CPD, the society still finds it necessary to defend the scheme. In its introduction it says: "The CPD scheme is seen by some to be a chore imposed by an all- powerful Law Society." It points out, however, that the profession has been subject to many external pressures such as the economic climate, Legal Aid Franchising and the opening up of areas of work to other professions.

As well keeping up to date with new and changing areas of law, the society argues that CPD will help solicitors to:

learn professional and management skills

develop existing areas of expertise and skill

meet the changing demand of clients and society

improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the profession

plan their career development.

The amount of time given to CPD is not particularly onerous. Solicitors are required to spend 16 hours a year in their first three years and 48 hours every three years on approved development activities thereafter. Credit can be claimed for attending courses, seminars and conferences run by approved in-house or external CPD providers. Distance learning courses, writing law books or legal articles, some types of legal research and practical skill courses also count. Solicitors must keep a personal training record and produce this to the society on demand.

Few solicitors fail because of a lack of legal knowledge or because they are ignorant of procedure. Most problems arise through poor management skills - lapses in case or office management, or because of poor communications with clients. The society therefore recommends that at least a quarter of CPD should be devoted to practical management skills.

Barristers are not subject to a compulsory scheme, although there are a number of voluntary programmes, says Keith Northrop, who is responsible for CPD at the Bar Council. These are mostly evening courses because "people tend to be locked into court timetables". He notes that there is "a lot of enthusiasm for these among junior barristers".

Next year, the Bar Council is launching a compulsory Young Tenants Programme for barristers who qualify from next summer and become eligible to join chambers. Under this scheme they will be obliged to undertake 28 hours of "continuing education" over three years. This will be divided between advocacy, ethics, case preparation and procedure. The advocacy training will be provided by the Inns of Court, the other courses by specialist bar associations or bar circuits. The Bar Council will maintain a record of how many hours barristers have done, and if hours are not completed, their licences to practise will be suspended.

Northrop says the scheme arose from changes in the full-time training of barristers, which was completely revamped seven years ago. He describes it as a "course of vocational training" and says the aim of the Young Tenants Programme is "not to teach them law, but how to do it. What we are aiming for is a continuum, starting at university learning law ... through the vocational stage ... becoming eligible to be called to the bar ... pupillage ... and from 1977 getting their practising certificate conditional on doing their 28 hours." It is proposed is that people will only be called after they have completed six months' pupillage with a barrister. "There are people who would like to extend this to lifelong development," Mr Northrop adds, "but we will see how our new programme works out."

Many professional bodies are no closer to implementing life-long learning and CPD than the Bar Council. It is recognised, however, that mandatory schemes are the way for most professions to avoid redundancy, to develop new skills and to improve quality of service.

The Law Society has set a useful example to the others.