The Importance of Being a Lifelong Learner

Dear lawyers: Please stop hating continuing legal education. I know it can be boring and it takes you away from your work. But I’d like you to give it a chance. It might just be your best opportunity to be happier, healthier, wealthier and wiser if you do it right.

The best in the world in every profession are usually lifelong learners. They spend their hard-earned dollars on books, conferences, classes, and coaches in the pursuit of information that will push themselves and those around them forward. Research from the University of Cambridge shows that lifelong learners experience more success, greater well-being, and are happier in their professional lives than non-learners.

These top professionals are always learning because the world is always changing. As the pace of change increases, their pace of learning increases to keep up. They know that if they don’t keep up with the latest technology, techniques, and research they will be left behind as the world moves on without them.

If lawyers want to make an impact in this fast-changing world, we must embrace this principle of continuous learning for the sake of our clients, the courts and the justice system.

Continuous learning is not quite the same thing as continuing legal education (CLE).

Traditionally, the underlying purpose of CLE is to keep lawyers informed of changes in the law. Forty-six states require their attorneys to earn a minimum number of hours of CLE. To that end, CLE providers offer classes mostly in substantive and procedural law subjects, ethics and law practice management.

However, practicing law is not as simple as it used to be. Twenty-first century legal practitioners must also invest in training in the areas of technology, the business of law, wellness, and interpersonal skills (e.g. empathy, collaboration, and creativity).

In fact, state bar associations are recognizing the need for technically competent attorneys. As of January 2019, 35 states have adopted the new Duty of Technical Competence rules. If bar associations are serious about technical competency, they need to offer appropriate classes and incentivize lawyers to learn technical subjects.

That training will require lawyers to invest more time in CLE. It will also require lawyers to seek out learning opportunities from non-traditional CLE sources, as the traditional purveyors of CLE have been slow to adapt their course offerings to include non-traditional subjects. If traditional CLE classes don’t teach what today’s lawyers need to know, lawyers have to look elsewhere for training.

What is continuous learning?

Continuous learning in the professional setting is about expanding your skill-set in response to changes and new developments in the world around you. Those skills may or may not be directly related to the practice of law. It’s about acquiring knowledge so you can adapt to future changes.

Unlike CLE, continuous learning is done for the sake of learning something new that may help you adapt to change now and in the future. At the same time, no one should expect that today’s training will be adequate for future advancements.

What might continuous learning look like for lawyers? It could be an attorney taking an accounting course at a local college, or becoming certified in Microsoft Office or document automation. You might learn to code or build smartphone applications. I know lawyers who are learning about design thinking, data analytics, and storytelling.

Law professor Caitlin Moon, the director of innovative design in the Program in Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt University Law School, is a huge believer in the power of continuous learning for lawyers. In fact, at the end of each semester, she helps her students create lifelong learning plans so their education and training don’t end when they graduate law school.

“Our profession is undergoing rapid change and evolution, for the better. Those who devote time and effort to learning about innovation—the tools, skills, and mindsets to embrace and make change that creates value—will lead the evolution and help set the course. Innovation requires continuous improvement so, in my humble opinion, only lifelong learners who truly commit to constant exploration will thrive in this new era. And help make law better for all.”

Professor Moon is dedicating time in 2019 to learning more about design fundamentals to support her work in human-centered legal design and innovation. What’s part of my continuous learning plan? I’m taking podcasting and high-performance courses. I’m also making my physical and mental well-being a priority through yoga and meditation classes.

The key takeaway is that continuous learning is not taking a course in substantive or procedural law. It’s about learning skills that will make you better and more relevant today, and in the years to come.

Here are five things every lawyer should think about when it comes to continuous learning.

1. Make CLE a part of your continuous learning plan.

If lawyers are to be lifelong continuous learners, they need to embrace continuous learning in all of its forms. For lawyers, this starts with CLE. Unless you exclusively practice in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, South Dakota, or Washington, D.C., your state bar association requires you to take CLE classes under the rules of professional responsibility.

You just need to approach it with intent and purpose, rather than as a burden to be done as quickly and as easily as possible. Think about what would make your practice better or what would benefit your clients most. If there’s a class that covers that, think about enrolling.

2. Start by seeking out learning opportunities that support your practice.

Many attorneys I have spoken with take CLE courses regardless of the subject matter. With the increased number of cheap CLE providers comes the tendency to take whatever class fits into an attorney’s schedule.

What does this mean? A patent attorney will attend the Latest Trends in Real Estate Easements class put on by her firm if it means she gets one credit hour of CLE out of the way.

It’s no wonder so many attorneys dislike CLE so much. If I took time away from my work to learn about a topic I had no interest in, I would be unhappy too. But this isn’t the fault of CLE. In fact, this defeats the entire purpose of CLE. Convenience and price should not undermine learning that would support your practice.

3. If you want to learn better, get out of the office.

Attorneys often tell me that they love online CLE classes. Why? They can put the class on in the background and continue to work on client matters.

Unfortunately, CLE hours don’t actually measure how much attorneys learn. It’s simply an arbitrary measure of time spent in a seat listening to an instructor talk. This type of “learning” is a waste of time, and again defeats the purpose.

If you want to actually get something out of your CLE, attend the class in person. Embrace the networking opportunity. Meet the other attorneys sitting in the room with you. Engage with the instructor. It might be more expensive and inconvenient but you should find learning opportunities that make you a better lawyer.

4. Set aside time for learning.

I know that time is a lawyer’s most valuable resource, but learning doesn’t have to be a big commitment. Maybe it’s simply setting aside 30 minutes or so a day to read or listen to a podcast. A subscription to Audible.com and Seth Godin’s latest book can turn your daily commute into a marketing course. As Professor Moon says, “The only one thing every lifelong learner must do is make time for it. What it looks like for you will depend on who you are and what you want to accomplish.”

5. You may not receive CLE credit but do it anyway.

You probably won’t get CLE credit for the data analytics class over at General Assembly. Do it anyway. Take that painting or yoga class that makes you a happier human being. In fact, find classes that support your personal interests. Focusing too much on work can make you miserable.

Think outside the traditional CLE box for your next learning opportunity. You never know what could come from that improv class. Steve Jobs came up with the font for the Mac by taking a calligraphy class.

The practice of law is getting more complex every day. The best way to meet the challenge that complexity brings is to learn something new. I encourage you all to become lifelong learners. Learning leads to curiosity. Curiosity leads to innovation, and innovation is the key to solving many of the challenges currently facing the legal profession. Let’s redefine continuing legal education.

About the Author

Kelly Proia is an intellectual property attorney and is the founder of Lawducate, which provides skills training and coaching to lawyers. Contact her on Twitter @lawducate.

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