New Zealand Law Society - CPD as a Growth Opportunity

CPD as a Growth Opportunity

By Sarah Alderson

The end of March for the legal profession marks the end of a CPD year. This March, with the rapid escalation of the COVID-19 situation our scramble for CPD points was pushed to one side in aid of alternate ways of working. That said, all the usual advertisements for last-minute 10 points in a day, on-demand webinar packs promising conveniently packaged learning whilst in your pjs on a Sunday morning (or anytime now really!) and push notifications warning that your regulatory tick must be lodged by 31 March rolled in thick and fast. So, not wanting to minimise our current state of uncertainty, as March progressed there were still some amongst us commencing the crazed search for last minute points and, predictably, a collective groan from the profession questioning whether this CPD business is really all that necessary.

It’s a time of year that deflates me. Particularly the grumbling from within the profession. And here’s why: this is an annual event. I’m not referring to the fact that the CPD requirement is an annual one, but rather, the last-minute rush to collect the hours and the overwhelming remonstrance expressed by the profession at the need to do so. As the grumbling increases I wanted to share some thoughts on why I think this annual moan and rush might be the case. Why, in my view, we’re failing at real engagement with CPD and why, at the end of the day, we’re missing an opportunity at something great.

It will be what you make it. That’s on you.

Anyone who’s ever got anywhere will tell you that attitude is key. If you start out with the view that CPD is a hassle, nothing more than a compulsory regulatory tick box and schoolish in nature, you’ll will never engage in a meaningful way. It is these thoughts that lead to writing a CPDPR after the fact (one that records what it was you got around to doing), looking for the easiest most cost and time effective way to complete the requirement and, yes, the rise in the on-demand webinar and 10 points in a day offerings.

Growth opportunities should be a priority

As a profession we are forced to grow competency, technical skill and up to date knowledge just by doing our jobs. We learn as we go and we grow as we do. But there is a real difference between day to day learning and focused time dedicated to growth and improvement. The latter provides space and should, where done correctly, focus on engagement, reflection and improvement. It’s a difference that is reflected in the rule requirement that a claimable CPD activity be separate from a lawyer’s day to day activity.

We’ve all been so busy some weeks that the lessons learnt along the way get lost in the rush of keeping two steps ahead and in juggling all that needs to be attended to. Setting aside time to collate and reinforce learning opportunities or just provide yourself the space to engage in them at all, is key to cementing them in our experience. Scheduling those growth opportunities should be a priority.

But they’re not.

I practised law in Australia for six years before returning to New Zealand last year. Upon my return I spent some time meeting and having informal conversations with legal practitioners of all levels of seniority regarding CPD. I wanted to know what their experiences of CPD were, what they thought of the current offerings and what importance they placed on continued learning within their practice. I wanted to know these things because I was, honestly, disappointed by what I perceived to be complete apathy from the New Zealand profession regarding continued learning and collegial opportunities. My Australian experience had been the complete opposite and I wanted to understand why in New Zealand it all seemed so… flat. My findings spurred me on to drive engagement and offer something new.

I took away two very salient points from those conversations: (1) CPD is an afterthought, and (2) undertaking it was tied to the regulatory requirement, not to a desire for self-improvement.

These points were reflected in the (numerous) junior level staff who told me their CPD engagement was dictated by their firm and in large part involved the outsourcing of one on one learning opportunities from seniors, to on-demand webinar. It was reflected in the fact that some attended the same conference every year to hear the same speakers update the same topics. Or the admission that webinar was easier because you can catch up on emails while it’s playing in the background. It’s reflected in the annual March grumble.

Where CPD is not seen as a priority or an opportunity for growth but rather tied to the need to tick a box, engagement is diminished. The answer for me, however, is not to deregulate or take away the compulsory requirement. It’s to encourage some ownership, reframe the intent and truly engage.

It’s called continued learning for a reason

It sounds a little obvious to even have to state but if you’re going to get the most out of CPD, you need to actually be learning. This is where I think the Law Society has provided some helpful direction. The requirement to write a CPDPR is a good one. You won’t know where you are headed unless you take some time to sit down and plot it out.

Reflection is important to understanding what you need. Reflecting on your practice, what gaps in knowledge you have come across in the last year, what skills you think you need to develop to grow as a lawyer or a business owner helps you to go out and look for the opportunities to fulfil your learning goals.

Choose a method of learning that suits you. I will forever dislike on-demand webinar. That’s just me. I don’t think it serves any learning purpose (or arguably meets the rule requirement for interaction and feedback) so I want face to face seminars or if web based, options that allow me to directly engage with the speaker and their content. This was a driving force for me in offering face to face seminars in Christchurch. I wanted great speakers, relevant content and an opportunity to network.

Really think about that word “continuing”. I wholeheartedly agree that our roles demand, require and largely provide continuing learning. That happens on the job. But when we’re looking to engage in focused learning on a particular point, is an hour over lunchtime going to do it? Are there options for follow up sessions or does the provider enable you to continue your engagement after the session has concluded? There is plenty of scope here to include some of the things you are already doing. Pass on your learning to others by being a speaker at an event, organise a study group, become a mentor.

The current model – is there room for improvement?

In my view, the fact that CPD is compulsory, is a red herring. The real issue is our attitude to it.

As adults we’re hard wired to reject compulsory requirements. No one really likes regulation (expect maybe regulatory lawyers) and it’s easy to feel resentful when your hand is being forced on something you don’t feel engaged in. Any young adult who returns home for a stint with their parents in between flats and is told to empty the dishwasher feels that keenly! But in my view, if your focus is on the fact that CPD is compulsory, you’ve already lost the battle for true engagement. For me, this is squarely a matter of attitude but if that doesn’t get you over the line, there is the matter of your professional status.

It is a hallmark of being a member of a profession (particularly traditional ones) that members are held to account for continued learning. Medicine, accountancy and engineering are three off the cuff examples of the same. Similar requirements are fit and proper person tests, the requirement to hold practicing certificates and being held to account over ethical standards. These three requirements are far more onerous than 10 hours of learning that’s aimed at doing you good and at the risk of sounding facetious, we’re not calling for them to be relaxed.

The current system is in fact remarkably malleable. For that I believe the Law Society should be applauded. It allows you to design your own learning programme complete with learning objectives and outcomes, seek fulfilment of it with any provider you choose and reflect on whether the content responded to your needs. The allocation of hours is at your discretion (within reason) and you are trusted by your regulator to engage with the threat of audit being the only stick to enforce compliance. In my view it’s almost the exemplar of pedagogical learning.

I have only two suggested changes to the current CPD system. They’re changes taken directly from the Australian system and while I acknowledge up front that they represent greater restriction on practitioner choice, I would argue despite that, they support a culture of continued and purposeful learning.

  1. There should be a limit on the amount of hours a practitioner can claim for learning that is delivered by on-demand webinar. In New South Wales there is a unit cap on private study of audio/visual material at 5 points (hours). Conversations I have had with my peers regarding their use of on-demand webinar suggests that it is the perfect example of ticking the box and learning very little. This is not continued learning, but in pulling up short of suggesting that they shouldn’t be counted at all, I hold out hope that for some it does represent a genuine learning opportunity and while as a profession we persist with this idea that CPD is a time drain (not a positive growth opportunity) it at least sees some learning achieved.
  2. We should consider categorising the allocation of hours to gently encourage a well-rounded learning approach. By requiring that practitioners have at least a point each in a number of defined categories (the NSW categories are ethics and professional responsibility, practice management and business skills, professional skills and substantive law) a practitioner necessarily diversifies their learning. It would likely also have the benefit of addressing some areas that our profession has struggled with in recent times (work stress, mental health, flexible requirements and management of inappropriate behaviour) coupled with the carrot of regulatory fulfilment.

A Challenge

With a new CPD year on the horizon, we have the opportunity to engage in a new way. How about a new approach?

Inform yourself: Have you read the rules? You might be surprised by all that you can achieve within them.

Have a positive attitude and less apathy: You can make CPD boring, difficult and a last-minute thought if you want to, but you’ll get no joy out of it.

Properly engage: For CPD this means setting aside some time to write a meaningful CPDPR. If you have time to complain, you have time to improve it. Research your options regarding learning opportunities and when you find them be present with them. Don’t answer emails. Don’t play with your phone. Listen, take it in and give some feedback.

Take some ownership and shape the system you want: Engage with each other. Talk about what you’re struggling with in your practice or areas you might want upskilling in. Share ideas and attend something together. Talking to CPD providers on this point will be crucial in shaping a system that responds to the real needs of practitioners.

Think outside the box: It is not the intention of CPD that you attend only black letter law courses. Start viewing it as a vehicle for helping you become a better and perhaps more well-rounded legal professional. Find something on stress management. Learn te reo Māori. Seize an opportunity to improve your public speaking. For the benefit of up and coming lawyers, help others within your firms or chambers see the importance of these things too.

He waka eke noa.

Sarah Alderson is the owner of PocketLegalCPD and a Christchurch-based senior legal counsel.

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