Law: Out of the lecture hall, into the practice: Older solicitors may not be too enthusiastic about going back to school, but the Law Society's new training scheme has its admirers. Sharon Wallach reports

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The Independent Online
Last November the Law Society introduced its new legal education scheme for qualified solicitors, called Continuing Professional Development (CPD). The system allows members of the profession to take more responsibility for planning their own professional development, according to Sue Eccleston, the society's manager of post-admission training.

A change from the old Continuing Education (CE) scheme is that a quarter of the new requirement may be fulfilled by less structured means than formerly. These can include authorised audio-visual or distance-learning courses as well as writing law books or articles.

'We are trying to make education more flexible and to encourage solicitors to plan and to extend their range of opportunities,' Miss Eccleston says.

The old CE points have been replaced by CPD hours. Under the old system, you could not get points for sessions lasting less than an hour; now half-hour sessions, which can be fitted into a practice's work more easily, are acceptable.

For the first three years after qualifying, solicitors have to complete 16 hours in each year; after that the requirement is 48 hours in every three-year period. Students will get extra credit for studying certain topics, including opportunities for solicitors in the European single market and alternative dispute resolution - trying to solve a problem by means other than litigation, such as mediation.

As well as in-house schemes run by individual firms, the society also accredits commercial course providers, among them TMI, based in Solihull, and a series of video companies - Legal Network Television, Television Education Network and, the latest to launch, TV Law.

Eventually all solicitors will be required to take part in CPD. At the moment the scheme applies to solicitors admitted to practice after 1 August 1987. From 1 November next year it will extend to those admitted on or after 1 November 1982. From November 1998 all solicitors will be included.

Some older practitioners have not welcomed the news that they are to be included in the scheme. On the whole, however, the profession has recognised the logic behind it, and many practices have anticipated it.

The West End practice Harbottle & Lewis, for instance, had already introduced comprehensive in-house training, according to its training officer, Susanna Riviere. 'It was office policy for all our fee-earners to comply with the CPD requirements,' she says.

Similarly, the City firm D J Freeman has an internal training scheme for all its fee-earners. 'We concur with the Law Society that it is very important to keep educating ourselves,' says Susan Hall, the partner responsible for training.

She believes that the move to extend continuing training to the whole profession could usefully have come even sooner. 'For a firm to be successful, everyone within it has to keep up to date with changes, not necessarily only those in their own field. Other areas may have an impact on their own work,' she says.

Training supports a firm's marketing strategy. 'Marketing and educational initiatives must be co-ordinated,' Miss Hall says. 'If an area of growth is identified, it has to be backed up with training.'

Gill Briant is the partner responsible for legal training at the City firm Denton Hall Burgin & Warrens. 'What is exciting about the new system, and wasn't trumpeted but should be, is what goes into the training. The real flexibility lies in the different forms of training that are now acceptable, such as accredited videos, preparing and giving talks, and distance-learning courses,' she says.

Dunstan Moore, the training officer at the City practice Norton Rose, agrees that the new system is 'thankfully more flexible'. He says: 'The Law Society has recognised the fact that lawyers learn in many more areas than just the formal lecture.'

Peter Clarke, the partner responsible for training at Taylor Joynson Garrett, also emphasises the flexibility of the new regulations: 'We can do a lot more in-house now.' He adds that the new system helps to foster team spirit in the firm. 'It is a good way of getting people together and it has enabled us to train assistants in the way we would like them to deal with clients.'

Richard Page, the professional development manager at the international firm Baker & McKenzie, believes that the very change of name, from CE to CPD, is an improvement in itself, 'because it takes the focus beyond purely legal education. CPD is an internationally understood expression. It indicates that solicitors recognise the need continually to extend their skills.' The old legal education focused too much on updating law, Mr Page believes. 'Now it includes communications skills, aspects of management - basically, how we do our jobs.'

As a big firm, Baker & McKenzie can do a lot of its own training. 'Generally, our needs are perhaps not too well met by external courses,' Mr Page says. And the timing of in-house training can be controlled. 'Most of our internal courses run early in the morning or at lunchtime, when client needs are at their lowest.'

Training has moved away from a blanket education programme - the evening lectures to which everyone was invited. Susan Hall of D J Freeman says: 'We now target particular groups. We are also looking at skills training, which until recently we had not considered in great detail.'

Videos may have 'great potential for skills training and induction', Miss Hall says. They can also win prizes. A video made by the City firm Nabarro Nathanson recently won a National Training Awards accolade in the shape of a regional commendation - the only law firm to get a mention. The video charted the life of a fictional company from start-up to insolvency, and is an example of the emphasis within the firm's CPD regime on practical skills development - such as interviewing techniques, and how to plan work, finance and marketing - as opposed to pure legal knowledge.

Nabarro Nathanson's director of legal education, Helena Twist, is all for the new regulations. 'One practical plus is that half-hour training sessions are now acceptable,' she says. 'The ability to get people together for a short brainstorming session is really useful and better suits the firm's working arrangements.'

She looks forward to the day when CPD is extended to the whole profession. 'There is a view among older lawyers that training is for youngsters, with the occasional exception of management training.' But the message has to be spread that training is for everyone: 'It's a confidence-boosting activity.'

Smaller firms may consider in-house training an expensive luxury. But, Ms Twist suggests, they, too, will come to recognise that 'running training internally unlocks a lot of know-how and experience'. Once continuing professional development is for all, she says, the incentive will be there.