SRA: Project Management is a core competence for solicitors

According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) project management is a core competence of solicitors.  This is set-out in its consultation document, ‘Training for Tomorrow: A Competence Statement for Solicitors’.

In this post I will outline the core competences expected of solicitors by the SRA, focusing particularly on project management.  I will also suggest where the list of project management activities (indicative of project management competence) could be expanded a little to provide further clarity for those seeking guidance about the new approach to solicitor training.

 

The new approach to solicitor training

Earlier this year the SRA announced the abolition of the current ‘points based’ training regime, whereby solicitors must acquire at least 16 points of continuous professional development (CPD) training during the training year.  In effect, this means solicitors attending 16 hours worth of training courses provided by accredited providers during the training year.

It is widely recognised that a strong element of ‘box ticking’ has developed over time in connection with the CPD requirements.  It is not unusual for solicitors to attend accredited courses, regardless of any direct relevance of the course to their work, simply to acquire the necessary CPD points.  The solicitors training year runs from October to October, and the annual dash for CPD points during September – October is a well-known feature of the current CPD regime.

As from 1 November 2014, the SRA has stopped accepting any new applications from organisations wishing to become authorised training providers.  From Spring 2015 solicitors and training organisations can, if they wish, adopt the ‘new approach’ of professional stage training for solicitors.

This new approach will be ‘standards based’ rather than ‘process based’.  What this means is the SRA is seeking to define minimum standards of competence expected of practising solicitors.

 

The core competences

The core set of competences identified by the SRA are, in its view, applicable to all solicitors ‘regardless of their role, their practice area or their level of experience’.

The competences are an attempt to describe all the activities that solicitors need to perform well (and to a reasonably high standard) in order to deliver legal services properly.

In the consultation document the competences are grouped under the following four headings:

  1. Ethics, professionalism and judgement;
  2. Technical legal practice;
  3. Managing yourself and your work;
  4. Working with other people.

Most relevant to this blog post are the competences set-out in sections 1 and, especially, 3.

 

Ethics, Professionalism and Judgement

I regard this section as being akin to an overarching section, containing meta-rules and principles informing every aspect of a solicitors work.

In competence statement A3 the SRA says that it expects solicitors to

Work within the limits of their competence and the supervision which they need, including

1. Disclosing when work is beyond their personal capability

2. Recognising when they have made mistakes or are experiencing difficulties and taking appropriate action

3. Seeking and making effective use of feedback, guidance and support where needed

4. Knowing when to seek expert advice

In the context of project management skills especially, it is obvious that practicing solicitors cannot be expected to acquire the knowledge, expertise and experience of professional project managers.

What should be expected of solicitors I think is that they have an understanding of key project management principles and can apply these principles appropriately to their work.  Equally importantly solicitors need to know, and appreciate, the limits of their personal project management skill-set and be prepared to seek further assistance if required.

Acknowledging limits of one’s experience and expertise is, or should be, a hallmark of a professional.  The core competence set-out above recognises this.  I’d suggest that professional self-awareness is one of the ‘meta-competences’ the SRA is looking to encourage.

In larger law firms there is a growing trend for employing specialist project managers to work alongside solicitors.  It should therefore be straightforward for solicitors working in these firms to seek help about applying project management principles and techniques to their work.  Solicitors working in less well-resourced firms may well believe they need more expert project management help and advice, but where they get this from is in reality rather problematic.

 

Project Management competence for solicitors

In section D, ‘Managing themselves and their own work’ the SRA expects that solicitors must:

Initiate, plan, prioritise and manage work activities and projects to ensure that they are completed efficiently, on time and to an appropriate standard, both in relation to their own work and work that they lead or supervise, including

1. Clarifying instructions so as to agree the scope and objectives of the work

2. Taking into account the availability of resources in initiating work activities

3. Meeting timescales, resource requirements and budgets

4. Monitoring, and keeping other people informed of, progress

5. Dealing effectively with unforeseen circumstances

6. Paying appropriate attention to detail

This is the list of activities which, taken together, defines what may be referred to as the project management competence expected of solicitors.

 

Some suggestions for clarification

The above list is a really good starting point and representative what may be called a traditional approach to project management, adapted to the needs of lawyers. At the very least, solicitors are now in no doubt that project management skills are considered a core competence.  Or is there room for doubt?  This is my first point of clarification.

Refer to Project Management

I think it would help for the SRA to state clearly that ‘project management’ is a core competence expected of solicitors. Although not actually stated, this is what the activities listed above amount to –  project management in practice.

In the excerpt quoted above, the SRA’s consultation document refers to solicitors working on ‘projects’.  Elsewhere the document also refers to ‘management’ in a number of contexts.  The phrase ‘project management’ is absent.

I think many solicitors are still in denial that they need to acquire and practice project management skills in order to fulfill their role. I fear that some will look at the tasks listed in the competence statement and still won’t fully accept the part that project management has to play in a modern legal practice.  I think if the SRA were to refer to ‘typical project management activities’ in its competence statement, it would remove any such room for doubt.

I would also prefer the SRA to list some other typical project management activities in its competence statement, especially the following.

Estimating

Estimating is notoriously difficult, but there are some standard and straightforward techniques which can be adopted by solicitors to help them estimate better.  Having a separate heading for estimating would help focus on this difficult area.

Planning

Meeting ‘timescales resource requirements and budgets’ does not just happen.  This needs to be planned in advance.  Research has shown that the more successful project managers spend twice as much time on planning as the less successful ones.  There is a good reason for this: planning works.

Project Reviews

Sadly, even professional project managers often omit project reviews.  This is a great pity.  Project teams, and therefore project based organisations, can develop and grow best by applying lessons learned from previous projects.  To benefit most from project reviews, they should be done regularly and consistently.

 

Contribute to the debate

According to the SRA, a representative sample of solicitors surveyed were strongly in favour of the move to standards based competences.  It is reasonable to expect a repeat of this outcome as a result of the wider consultation exercise.

The SRA is keen to encourage responses to its consultation ‘from all stakeholders including the profession, other legal service providers, the academic community, the judiciary and business and personal users of legal services’.

The consultation period ends on 12 January 2015.  You can find further information about how to take part in this consultation at the ‘Training for Tomorrow’ section of the SRA’s website.  I would encourage you to take part in the consultation exercise, particularly if you have any views about the need for solicitors to demonstrate competence in project management.

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