Ask the Professor: Why Do We Need CLE?

One of the more annoying discoveries a fresh law graduate makes (other than the reality of the legal job market) is that they now have to take even more schooling each year in the form of continuing legal education (“CLE”). In most jurisdictions, once admitted to the bar, lawyers need to complete a minimum number of mandatory CLE credits, typically either annually or biennially. Failure to stay in compliance can lead to a hefty fine or even suspension. Some state’s requirements require that attorneys attend special live classes, complete homework assignments, or even take special courses on mental health and substance abuse issues.

The initial justification for mandatory CLE was that we are a self-regulating profession and we need to ensure that all attorneys are informed of the evolving laws. While this sentiment is certainly justifiable and relevant today, what started out as a well-intentioned regulation has turned into a multimillion dollar industry with new providers popping up each day offering credits for as low as $7.99 each. This all begs the question: with occasionally burdensome requirements, strict penalties for non-compliance, and an industry that does not meet its original intent, do we still need CLE (we do!) and how can we fix it?

While the current state of affairs for the legal education industry is a bit murky, mandatory continuing legal education is still a very good thing and should still be required, if for no other reason than to give the public confidence in the profession. Most all other professions require it, and as attorneys, we should not give the impression we are above keeping up with the law. However, changes should be made to ensure that the goals of the requirements are met. As any parent knows, it is difficult to force someone to learn something if they have no interest in learning it. Making mandatory CLE credit hours did not create voracious learners, but rather simply created a new industry for people looking to circumvent new requirements.

Attorneys who wish to better themselves will continue to do so regardless of the regulations. And those that do not wish to learn more will only resent the current requirements instead of embracing them. The benefits of CLE, however, are many, and extend well beyond just staying up-to-date with the law. It is important for our bar associations and CLE boards to recognize this and emphasize it. CLE seminars are a place where attorneys cannot only learn from an instructor, but from one another. I have witnessed first-hand at CLE events veteran attorneys guiding newly admitted attorneys in choosing a career path. I have seen the benefits of networking between attorneys who practice in similar fields and in different ones. And I have seen attorneys able to get the specific help they need on a tricky case.

How to fix CLE:

Standardize the Requirements. With the Uniform Bar Exam currently being administered in 14 states and likely to be adopted in New York and others as soon as 2016, it is time we standardize CLE requirements, too. Currently, the requirements and deadlines can vary wildly. For instance, a New York veteran attorney (admitted more than 2 years) must complete 24 credit hours every two years by their birthday, whereas, an attorney admitted in Colorado must complete 45 credit hours every three years. Moreover, states cannot even decide on how long a credit hour is. In New Jersey, a credit hour is only 50 minutes, while a brief trip down the turnpike to Pennsylvania will get you a typical 60-minute hour. This must change. There should be one standard requirement for all jurisdictions that choose to participate. This would not only make staying on top of your requirements easier for those admitted in multiple states, but it would allow programs to be more content focused instead of compliance focused.

Decrease the Number of CLE Providers. Google “CLE” and you will find hundreds of providers pushing cheap CLE. It feels more like a scene from a Moroccan bazaar than a plan for learning. Because the requirements of becoming a CLE provider and for what qualifies as a CLE program have become far more lax, CLE has become more of a product to be consumed than an enrichment tool. By limiting, or even decreasing, the number of licensed accredited CLE providers, accreditation boards will not be overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork and can spend more time regulating the existing providers.

Require Attendance at Live CLE Classes for All Attorneys. We should not shun technology in the legal field, but there are certain benefits to in-person interaction that cannot be recreated over the internet. The rest of the country should follow the lead of states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey that understand that a live credit requirement allows attorneys to network in a way that LinkedIn and Facebook cannot. By increasing the number of live, in-person CLE credits required, attorneys will not only be assured the quality of the programs will increase but so will the benefits attorneys receive from attending. Live CLE classes allow speakers to engage with participants in a way prerecorded lectures cannot and help perpetuate discussion on new topics that attorneys may be unfamiliar with. And for anyone who has ever had their administrative assistant hunt through online courses for embedded codes, keep in mind that live lectures are an excellent way to monitor attorney attendance.

CLE is broken. But it can be fixed and should, under no circumstance, be eliminated. It is our duty to ensure that we are protecting our profession. With the argument that there are less and less qualified students entering and graduating law school, if we don’t take these steps, we may lose the trust of the public and find ourselves replaced by computers.