11 July 2022

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Preparing the next generation

Sarah Hutchinson has the job of ensuring the Costs Lawyer qualification is fit for the future. She talks to Neil Rose about how ACL Training is going about this

Sarah Hutchinson, chair of the board of ACLT 

There is a lot riding on the revamp of the Costs Lawyer qualification. The Hook Tangaza report, published last week by the Costs Lawyer Standards Board (CLSB), found differing views on the current course, provided by ACL Training (ACLT).

“On the one hand, we heard from some that the course helped Costs Lawyers add value because it gave them context and helped them to understand the legal sector better and the bigger picture of the litigation in which they were involved,” the report said.

“This was particularly true of those who had come to the course through on-the-job training in the sector, without any formal training in the law.”

“On the other hand, we heard from others that the course was less useful for those who had already studied law in a formal setting.” Others also felt that it did not reflect the specialist knowledge of the different areas in which Costs Lawyers are increasingly working and specialising.

The report said the CLSB could use the qualification as part of its efforts to encourage greater innovation in the market, as well as creating CPD modules that focus on skills in new areas and specialisms such as legal project management, legal technology, and pricing.

This is the challenge facing Sarah Hutchinson, who has now been chair of the board of ACLT since January 2022. A well-known figure from the world of legal education, she took on the non-executive role – with the new ACLT board – of reworking the Costs Lawyer qualification.

“It’s a really exciting time to be on the ACLT board,” she tells The Costs Lawyer Journal, in her first interview. “The ACLT course necessarily reflects the requirements imposed by the CLSB, which is currently working on a new competency framework. We recognise that there are many new areas of business are opening up for Costs Lawyers, such as litigation insurance and project management.

“There’s a real opportunity to shape the qualification so that the next generation of Costs Lawyers can benefit from these opportunities.”

It is also important to acknowledge, Ms Hutchinson continues, how traditional areas of practice are changing with the major expansion in fixed costs next April. “At the heart of what we are doing is ensuring that the next generation of Costs Lawyers have the right skills and training to equip them for the future.”

She describes how the first task was to create a board “reflective of the profession”. Two of the members represent the ACL Council (ACLT’s sole shareholder) – Laura Rees, who works at Hill Dickinson and Victoria Morrison-Hughes, who co-founded Integral Legal Costs a year ago – while ACL appointed two independent directors: Ian Gilbert, an associate and technical specialist at Irwin Mitchell, and Ben Nethercott, an advocate at Civil & Commercial Costs Lawyers and recently qualified Costs Lawyer.

The ACL approves ACLT’s business plan and budget, and receives regular reports and minutes from ACLT. There is, says Ms Hutchinson, a “big spirit of cooperation”. Similarly, the ACLT board has built a good working relationship with the CLSB. “It’s in everybody’s interests that we have a sustainable course that leads to a highly valued qualification.”

The work on revising the qualification began with a survey to which 40% of profession responded and a series of roundtables, with Costs Lawyers, students and employers. The employer perspective is important – if the course becomes the baseline of competence for dealing with costs, employers will value it.

“The roundtables have given us some interesting insights that will help us to make sure not only the content of the programme is fit for the future but also new ideas of how we can deliver it in more flexible and accessible way,” she says.

A lot of the feedback from the profession was that Costs Lawyers did not want to see substantial change to the content of the course, Ms Hutchinson explains, but at three years takes too long – even a part-time legal practice course only takes 18 months to two years to complete:

ACLT is aiming to create a fast-track and modular approach to the qualification that could allow students to accelerate their studies and/or only take selected modules from with the course. While they would not end up with the full qualification, they could receive a certificate for completing particular modules.

Ms Hutchinson says: “From an employer’s point of view, you get people with the right training. From a learner’s perspective, it gives them a taste which might inspire them to complete the full qualification.”

The next step will be to create a draft course outline for consultation and then a final version sent to the CLSB for accreditation, with a view to starting the new course in 2023.

A big question is whether there might be an exemption for experienced costs draftspeople who, for whatever reason, have not become qualified Costs Lawyers. It is “inevitable” that ACLT will look at the issue of prior learning, she says, noting that there are already exemptions in place for law graduates and those who have gone through the solicitor and barrister training.

“One of the challenges for ACLT is how can we retain the brand of the qualification, because it does have a strong brand within the profession, while making it more attractive to other 90% of people working in costs,” Ms Hutchinson says. “It’s about trying to get that balance.”

Also, she stresses, not everything has to change at once. “The development of the programme will be ongoing and it’s important that we keep the best of what we’ve already got and the things that people already value whilst making incremental improvements to make the course more attractive.”

Another such issue is including training on soft skills. There are pedagogic solutions to address this, Ms Hutchinson says. For instance, instead of teaching a topic in an academic way and then examining it by essay, you require students to complete a practical exercise.

“We’re seeing excellent examples of skills-based assessments in some in-house training programmes. Skills are best taught in context rather than academic-style exercises.”

Another project for the future is cross-accreditation. “Can someone who’s done a CILEX qualification be automatically exempt from part of the Costs Lawyer qualification and vice versa? If we can make dual qualifications more open and an access route to the wider legal profession, that will attract more people to becoming Costs Lawyers.”

The times they are a-changing at ACLT, with chief executive Kirsty Allison leaving her post soon. “Kirsty has made an invaluable contribution to ACLT and, like so many members of our profession, we will miss her greatly. However, ACLT is now operating with a full board of directors and a support team in place, and it is a new era for the Costs Lawyer qualification.  We are confident that the profession has an exciting future ahead of it.”