The Law Society has released its guidance on the new continuing competence regime for solicitors, which is being phased in to replace the traditional 16 hours requirement for continuing professional development. Solicitors have been able to choose to move to the new regime as of 1 April 2015 and all solicitors must move by the deadline of 1 November 2016.

Continuing competence opens the way for learning and development to become a valuable differentiator for a firm, moving away from what was widely seen as a tick-box approach. Reflection is at the heart of the new approach, with the expectation that solicitors will reflect on their own levels of competence – in terms of technical legal knowledge and also other expertise and skills, such as ethics, working with others and managing their work. The inclusion of ‘working with others’ as one of four broad competences identified by the SRA shows just how important client relationships, teamwork and effective communication are in modern legal practice.

Following the first stage of reflection, solicitors must then select appropriate activities that  help them to improve their skills or knowledge in any identified areas. The new regime allows a much broader range of activities, better aligned with current thinking about effective learning. There is no minimum time period that an activity must last, so even reading one short article online can count – if it addresses an identified learning need. Indeed, activities that help to ‘digest’ information can also count – for example, writing a blog post or article which analyses or responds to the information gleaned from the original activity.

Having carried out an ‘activity’, this should then be recorded “in any way you see fit”, as the Law Society guidance explains. The process of recording should include another phase of reflection, to consider whether the identified learning need has been met and how the learning can be embedded into the solicitor’s practice.

The broad (some may say ‘vague’) nature of the new regime gives solicitors and their firms a lot of latitude to decide the appropriate approach themselves. For some firms, development activity will have been a valued, strategically significant part of what they do for many years and not much will change; for others, the most obvious outcome will be the slashing of training budgets. However, the value of meeting and, indeed, exceeding a basic level of ‘competence’ to deliver the best possible service to clients should not be underestimated.

Interestingly, the Law Society guidance highlights that the annual declaration is not actually a declaration of competence but simply confirmation that an individual “has reflected on the quality of their practice and addressed any identified learning and development needs”. It is up to the firm to manage any competence issues, through supervision for example.