I do declare! Let’s make declaring “competence” to practise a source of pleasure & pride

This week solicitors and their employers will be signing off on their Declaration of Competence* for the year.  How will that feel, I wonder?  Will it be an administrative task or pleasure to reflect on a year of continuous learning?  If we take technical expertise as given, what would be on a solicitor’s wish list of “competence”?  At the end of the year, looking back, what is it that solicitors would like to be able to say they enjoyed learning to do differently at work?

That word “enjoyed” is important.  I’m interested in people engaging with learning and enjoying the possibilities that brings.  There are so many brilliant lawyers capable of so much in terms of client service and commitment to the Rule of Law.  What excites me is bringing capability and possibility together; that’s when learning rocks!

There are some smart individuals and some big firms doing really interesting things, particularly around the use of technology in delivering legal services.  Lots of people want to be involved in this story and are unsure of where to start.  Unfortunately, what can happen is a debilitating sense of uncertainty which makes the gap between capability and what feels possible widen, rather than shrink.


In that situation we end up with sameness; same people, same practice.  If that is what everyone is comfortable with and feels is a long-term option, then that’s fine.  The difficult question is; will clients think its fine?  If they are navigating changing and uncertain times, if they are working on their own capability and creating commercial possibilities, might they expect their legal advisers not only to do the same, but to help them meet their challenges?  Could lawyers be leading the way?  I can’t see why not, if their business purpose is to serve client need.  And that’s where the wish list of competencies can play powerful role.

Competencies are a regulatory requirement.  More importantly they are a way of describing what “good” looks like in terms of a range of different capabilities.  Crucially, you can only define “good” in relation to your purpose.  Not everyone has to be competent at everything.  There is discretion.

Perhaps it is more useful to think of it as a declaration that each individual is equipped to play their part and make their contribution to the future of the business.  So what do you wish for?

*What is the “Declaration of Competence”?

The Declaration provides affirmation jointly by the solicitor and their employer to state that each solicitor has learned continuously throughout the year in order that they may provide a “proper standard of service”.  The declaration is:

“I have reflected on my practice and addressed any identified learning and development needs.”

In turn, the SRA will issue them a Practising Certificate.  Only if there is an allegation of incompetence will the regulator seek to turn over the stone marked “learning” and see what evidence of lies there.




Learning Culture & Compliance – Blog 1

I spoke to a group of Compliance Officers, Managing Partners and Finance Directors from the legal sector yesterday on the topic of “how a learning culture supports compliance”.  My talk was about the legal sector, but the issues raised are relevant to any business which needs to preserve a technical edge and also move with the times.  I have captured my thoughts in a series of short blogs.

Blog 1

Learning is not merely a matter of compliance, but it helps!

Making a business case for learning at work brings us up against some fundamental questions:  Why learn?  Is it merely to satisfy a regulatory requirement?  Is learning solely to support expertise or is it for something else?  Do wider business skills require development?

Establishing purpose

All of these questions lead back to one thing, business purpose.  Being clear about what the business is trying to achieve is a pre-requisite to developing strategic plans of any kind, including learning strategy.  Once you have clarity about purpose then it is possible to make an assessment of the knowledge & skills people will demonstrate when that purpose is realised.  Are they the same as the ones they have now?   It is unlikely that they will be purely based on technical expertise; expertise is “a given”.

Muddling through

In professional service firms it can be fairly easy to establish wide-ranging learning needs, because historically there has been a tendency to promote people to managerial and leadership roles on the basis of technical expertise or even time-served.  Often those promotions have been made without preparation or development support.  And that approach has, broadly speaking,  been adequate to-date, but the gaps and tensions it creates are becoming increasingly obvious.

Expecting people to muddle through their responsibilities as leaders and managers in a business is possible when there is plenty of work about and plenty of people to do the work.  However, when there is less work, or when that work needs to be done more efficiently by fewer people, the system, and the people within it, becomes strained.  Add to that dynamic a demand to deliver big intangibles such as “client-focussed service”, issues of “retention” or “succession planning” and the old approach is found wanting.

Using compliance to get “buy-in”

So we do not need to rely on compliance to make a compelling business case for investment in learning, but considering the barriers that exist, it gives the argument leverage.  The truth is that a lot of firms want the benefits of great knowledge and skills – in terms of delivering things like client service standards, efficiency and profitability and retaining staff – but when push comes to shove, the organisation really values and recognises fee-earning.  When making the case for investing time and money in learning, compliance provides a regulatory rationale for a change in approach.  It can be the foundation on which the steps towards effective learning strategy and business transformation can be made.

SRA chief promises “a bonfire” of unnecessary regulations in legal education & training

The Westminster Forum on the LETR ended today with Antony Townsend CEO of the SRA declaring an imminent “bonfire” of regulations on legal education & training.  He promised to strip away regulations which inhibit access to the professions, including abolishing the requirement to issue a Certificate of Completion of the academic stage of training.

After a morning of speeches and discussions about the need for change, the audience was delighted by promises of real action from the SRA.  Three headlines were announced:

  1. An end to “one-size fits all” education and training.  A range of paths into the professions are to be encouraged based on the skills & knowledge that employers require.
  2. The tick box approach to cpd “will go”, to be replaced by a strategy for continuing competence.
  3. A  “bonfire” of unnecessary regulation was enthusiastically predicted.

Townsend kindled a blast of energy at the conclusion of the event.  Some aspects of legal education, he said, are just “not good enough”.  One factor took the edge off the force his address; decisions will follow a period of consultation and will be finalised “late next year”.  However, given the tone and force of the announcements the intention is clearly that sparks will fly.

Appearing on the same platform as Simon Thornton-Wood from the BSB, Townsend declared that the two regulators are working closely together to address change following LETR recommendations.  Challenged from the floor to generate plans together, rather than comparing notes retrospectively, the two insisted that they are working in partnership.  “Our destination is the same,” Thornton-Wood insisted, “and our methods of arriving there need to converge”.

NJ at LETR     Nicola contributing to the LETR Symposium, July 2012

The LETR Report was met with some ambivalence when it was published in June.  The most prevalent criticism being that it should have been bolder in its recommendations.  My view has always been that the professions would have reacted badly to being told what to do.  The LETR has done its job: it has forced the regulators to act.  Now the legal professions must use education and training to create an agile, motivated workforce which can deliver excellent service and protect the rule of law.

If you would like to talk about the LETR, about learning & development strategy or any other L&D matter please email on nicola@athenaprofessional.co.uk or call 07799 237479