It won’t have escaped your attention that your boss’s continuing professional development (CPD) obligations have changed quite dramatically over the past couple of years. From a mandatory 16 hours per year, the minimum annual learning requirement for solicitors has been reduced to zero, and CPD has been replaced by “continuing competence”. When the rules for your boss have been relaxed, you may question the importance of CPD for yourself. CPD, however, remains one of the biggest opportunities for all Legal Secretaries and PAs.
Taking a set amount of CPD every year increases your skill set, gives you more content for your CV and probably will enhance your earning power. But there’s also the more straightforward pleasures of being able to understand more about the background of your job and reviving your interest in your work when you’re feeling a bit jaded.
One of the big advantages of the ILSPA’s CPD programme is that it is very wide-ranging. There are no prohibited subjects, and although you must apply each year to have your CPD work accredited the basic requirement is simply that your learning should be relevant to your job.
Naturally that would include study of the law and the business of law, and many Legal Secretaries will concentrate on this, but the net spreads much wider. It can also, for example, encompass a great deal of the IT training on the market. If what you want to do is simply improve skills you already have, there are specialist courses on the major word processing and office management programs — ILSPA runs a specialist distance-learning course on Microsoft Office and there are plenty of others available.
Others may want to add some new IT skills to their CV. More and more law firms these days need expertise with websites, graphic design and social media. You should certainly not expect to become the firm’s website designer after taking a couple of courses, but you may well find yourself increasingly valued as the person in the office who can communicate best with the company’s web designers. Many lawyers know that an internet presence is essential these days, but find it extremely difficult to get to grips with the web and with social media; this is particularly the case in smaller and medium-sized firms, which can’t afford a dedicated marketing team and find it tough to get their message across to marketing companies. In other words, a lot of lawyers are having to buy products that they don’t completely understand and in which they may have no real confidence. Legal Secretaries and PAs with IT expertise can be in the perfect position to bridge the gap — and to make themselves prized members of staff in the process.
IT skills are not only highly transferable from job to job, but they are also good CV builders in the sense that they are likely to increase your salary requirements. It makes sense in a volatile jobs market — and the whole legal sector is volatile at the moment — to maximise your working potential and your earning power.
CPD also offers the opportunity to expand skills that you use from time to time in your job and would like to use more: for example, arranging and booking travel, organising your firm’s social and professional events, or speaking in a foreign language to your linked firms overseas. You can study online or at evening classes, or you can read some of the many available books on your chosen skills. Not only will you gain some valuable practical tips, but you will also strengthen your CV.
Asking for support in studying these “niche” skills, however, is sometimes the hardest sell to your boss, who may well consider that you’re managing okay as it is, or that you know enough to get by and so a course is unnecessary. Part of the issue may be that your boss is worried that after acquiring a new qualification that the firm has paid or partly paid for, you will fly the nest. This is always a difficult situation to negotiate. Sensible employers know that it is worth their while to support your career progression, whether by allowing you a certain amount of study time or by helping with fees. It is always worth discussing your goals with your line manager to see what your employer may be able to offer you, and what reassurance you can offer your employer.
Many secretaries and PAs find that after several years in the job, they are increasingly being asked to manage systems within the office (work flow and work allocation, for example) and/or help with recruitment or support staff management. If you are in that position, perhaps you should consider whether you want to take a course in office management or human resources. These are particularly tough responsibilities to handle without the support of some kind of training, and it is worth making your boss aware of this.
Continuing professional development remains an important way to enrich your working life, whether you use it to progress along a defined career path, to pick up extra skills along the way or simply to understand more about the world in which you work. CPD adds value to your own experience and to your employer, and it gives you more control of your future. For all of these reasons, it is worth asking yourself — if you haven’t done so already — whether there is anything that CPD can do for you this year.