Attorneys in almost all U.S. jurisdictions are subject to continuing legal education (CLE) requirements to maintain their license to practice law. But to complicate this requirement, the law is locally regulated. Like the standards for admission to the bar, the rules and regulations governing minimum continuing legal education (MCLE) are determined by each jurisdiction. This means that a wide variety of requirements have been developed to regulate attorneys associated with their ongoing needs for education and training.
The objective of MCLE, however, is relatively consistent across all jurisdictions—to ensure the ongoing competence of attorneys in representing their clients, ensuring justice in the administration of the law. While this may seem like a straightforward objective, a wide variety of needs exist across the legal system. What an attorney requires in education to best support his or her clients varies greatly based on many factors—and those factors will likely change throughout an attorney’s career. This means that education and training needs also change over time.
What are the factors that influence an attorney’s determination of his or her own educational needs?
- Practice area: from administrative law to workers’ compensation issues, the substantive are of law that each attorney practices will continue to be one of the largest influencers on the educational needs of that attorney. This area in particular is where educational needs match well with MCLE credit-available programs.
- Type of “client”: the educational needs of a government attorney, corporate counsel or defense or plaintiff’s attorney may be very different.
- Size of practice: a solo or small firm attorney made need to support a wider variety of clients or practice areas, so may have a wider range of educational needs. Large firm, governmental or corporate attorneys’ needs may vary by the size of their offices as well.
- Level of experience: an attorney just beginning in practice has vastly different needs from an attorney with years of experience in a particular subject. And level of experience may be specific to the topic—a seasoned practitioner may need to learn about emerging areas of the law, new practice areas to best support his or her clients, or to build skills to back changes in job duties, such as a move from one sector to another.
- Technical competence: familiarity and comfort with the latest tools and systems, both those that support an attorney’s day-to-day job duties as well as those that allow for learning in new ways (such as webcasts or e-learning) will impact the educational needs and choices available for training.
- Skills analysis: identifying the essential expertise needed to best perform and support a wide variety of clients is critical to understanding an attorney’s educational needs at any given time, and then acknowledging any gaps in these skills that must be closed through training is key.
Additionally, an attorney does not practice or work in a vacuum—many external factors may impact an attorney’s needs at any given time. These include:
- Tools and systems an attorney uses—office systems, software, hardware and devises. Changing technology and the availability of new tools to assist an attorney with his or her workload has highlighted the need for training and support of those products.
- Administrative support available—like the tools and systems an attorney uses, the additional support available varies greatly for attorneys and may impact his or her educational and training needs. If an attorney must self-support his or her work, the types of skills and education needed may be different than for the needs of an attorney with a large administrative staff.
- Upcoming cases or projects, or new clients, colleagues, or management—often referred to as “just-in-time” learning, an attorney may need to learn new skills, get updates on a topic or practice area, or gain an understanding of a new aspect of the law based on a new client or case that he or she has recently taken on. Other changes in circumstances may move an attorney from an established practice to a new area requiring new learning.
- A change in job or position—as with the addition of new clients or casework, changing jobs may add to the educational and training needs of an attorney when he or she takes on work different from prior experience.
Clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach to CLE will not be effective given the multiple variables involved. Attorneys need flexibility and choice in their CLE to best support their individual educational needs at the times they seek to take programs. This means a need for flexibility in:
- Speakers and potential audience with whom to network and learn
- Formats of delivery that take into account different learning styles
- Program levels from basic to advanced
- Length of program and time of day it is offered
- Type of program—overview, in-depth analysis, lecture, panel discussion, roundtable, how-to, or hands on practicum
Once an attorney has determined his or her own educational needs, the search for CLE programs that then satisfy those necessities begins. And once identified, a key question will be: “Does this qualify for MCLE credit?”
Happily, regulatory authorities in many jurisdictions have increasingly recognized the need for flexibility and that the rules governing MCLE should allow for accreditation of programming that goes beyond the traditional definition of CLE. Topics beyond substantive law now qualify for credit in many jurisdictions. These include:
- programming on technology topics (lawyers’ use of tools and systems to better support their practice)
- law practice management (from time and billing solutions to managing a staff)
- “soft skills” (like communication, leadership, delegation, teamwork and collaboration, adaptability) when created for an attorney audience
- specialty credits (such as diversity and inclusion or mental illness and substance use disorder issues)
To best support this wide array of educational needs in the attorney population, the ABA seeks to understand its membership so as to create the right mix of content, not only from a topical, level, or segment perspective, but also to allow the flexibility necessary to provide choice to attorneys in their CLE options. Whether in-person meetings, live webinars offered at various times of day or week, or pre-recorded programs available 24/7, attorneys may avail themselves of many delivery options that best fit their educational goals and training preferences. With content developed through more than 70 sections, forums, committees, commissions, and other entities within the ABA, the spectrum of topics, practice areas, and issues can be covered by experts to create CLE.
With a focus on better aligning tools, processes, and procedures to maximize the quality of programs we produce and the ease with which attorneys can take advantage of these courses, the ABA is moving forward to reinforce our CLE offering to ensure we lead the industry in our content, technology, and services. Maximizing credit opportunities for our attendees by widely accrediting programs across all US jurisdictions while minimizing paperwork, creating an easy-to-use record keeping system, and providing our members an understanding of how ABA CLE can help each meet their MCLE requirements is an additional concentration.
One of the best guides to determine how we are doing with ABA CLE is to hear from our members—what’s working, what’s not, and what they need to support their ongoing professional development. For an attorney, CLE isn’t just checking a box to maintain a license. It is ensuring that he or she can stay up-to-date, get advice, build skills, manage their practice, and connect with colleagues—all to best support his or her clients. Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or concerns.
About the Author
Gina Roers-Liemandt is the director of MCLE and Program Development for the ABA. In addition to her email address above, contact Gina on Twitter @CLE_GRL.