The announcement by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) earlier this year to remove the prescribed number of CPD hours for solicitors was welcome news to some, regretted by some and probably met with indifference by others.

The intention by the SRA to rely on the regulated firms to take direct ownership of the ongoing professional competence for their staff is logical and is in alignment with an outcomes focused regulatory approach predicated on the assumption that the majority of regulated firms would use the new given flexibility to promote the best interests of their customers.

However, there remains the concern that the new found freedom may result in the race to the bottom below the former prescribed level as firms may seek to reduce their expenditure budgets. What is puzzling with that view is how a professional services firm can hope to thrive and be sustainable in this digitally connected, mobile enabled and rapidly changing world with increased transparency and smarter customers by only devoting 16 hours of annual learning and development for all their staff including their lawyers.

The risk that appears to be underestimated is the race to top rather than the race to the bottom. Imagine Gen Y lawyers and Gen Z lawyers of the future evaluating the legal services providers where they choose to invest their talents. It seems to me that providers with woolly responses such as ‘we provide whatever development is necessary to meet client needs’ is unlikely to be compelling for such lawyers that may increasingly value more challenging work and passionate about lifelong learning relative to vertically engineered career ladders. The risk is that firms with greater resources may make bolder commitments greater than 16 CPD hours to their lawyers in order to win the war for talent which may make it more challenging for smaller firms to make similar promises with regard to learning and development.

I guess the sad thing about the removal of the requirement of 16 CPD hours is that it perhaps demonstrates that the return on investment (ROI) of the prescribed professional development to improve business performance was unclear or unproven. Whilst the change of this regulatory arrangement is welcome by some firms, the real losers are likely to be the training providers unless they can help legal services providers to establish more easily and persuasively the link between continuous professional development and improved business performance.

Seth Godin, a leading marketing blogger stated in his blog earlier this year (May 2014)

“….Budget appropriately, because the very worst thing you can do with an ad is spend too little–it will get you the same results as spending nothing”.

The idea that insufficient advertising is the same as no advertising is interesting and I wonder whether the same applies to prescribing minimum professional development. Setting a level common to all leads to a lowest common denominator that may be insufficient to result in a noticeable positive impact on business performance.

So a key challenge for legal firms is to ensure that they have effective systems to optimise the benefits of flexibility when the new arrangements become effective in November 2016 (or April 2015 if a firm chooses to adopt the new approach earlier).

One of such systems is better evaluation of the impact of the investment in learning and development to ensure continued delivery of the right customer experience (including a competent legal service) for the target customers. Although the traditional approach to measuring ROI on learning and development is to ensure that the financial benefits exceed the costs of delivery. The drawback with this approach is that it may not take into account all costs including opportunity costs and those intangible benefits which are difficult to quantify but may be critical to sustain a firm’s desired culture and competitive advantage. It may therefore be preferable to adopt a more holistic approach to evaluation that combines a financial assessment (ROI) with an assessment of intangible benefits of learning and development activities.

Some tips to consider to optimise the impact of learning and development on business performance are as follows:

  • Identify the right learning and development needs at the appropriate levels (individual, team and firm level) aligned with the strategic priorities of the firm;
  • Develop clear learning and development objectives and outcomes with particular attention on alignment with business results including the behaviours that a firm wishes its people to demonstrate to achieve strategic priorities;
  • Design the right mix of learning and development activities to achieve the desired outcomes being mindful to build evaluation at this stage including the data required to assess the impact of those activities;
  • Deploy a diverse mix of learning and development methods taking into account the different  needs of staff, their preferred learning styles and their appetite for learning;
  • Collection of the right data to inform the assessment of the impact of learning and development particularly focusing on the following key considerations:
  • How relevant, useful and enjoyable is our portfolio of learning and development methods?
  • How well are our people learning new knowledge and skills through the learning and development methods?
  • How well are our people applying the new knowledge and skills in the workplace?
  • How conducive is our work environment and culture to encourage and enable the swift utilisation of the new knowledge and skills acquired?
  • How well do we follow up with our people to ensure acquired new skills and knowledge are applied in the workplace?
  • How well has the performance of the firm improved arising from the deployed learning and development activities?
  • Assess the impact of learning and development methods alongside the regular review of business/strategic plans, ensuring that measurement activity is integrated into existing systems in the firm where possible recognising the key challenge of appropriately isolating the specific contribution of learning and development on the positive results of the firm.

So the shift from how much to how well CPD is deployed in legal firms offers promise of a better customer experience for consumers of legal services.

Is your firm ready to deliver that promise?