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After years of traditional textbook learning, young lawyers entering law firms anxiously anticipate the hands-on education they will receive in practice. Trading backpack for briefcase and jeans for a new business suit, they ceremoniously retire their casebooks to the shelves of their new offices, expecting to reference them only once in a while. What they don’t know is that more substantive learning is ahead of them even after they have been admitted to the bar. In addition to drawing on their traditional law school education, they will have to master new areas of the law that were never covered in law school and fulfill continuing legal education (CLE) requirements in order to maintain their law licenses. CLE is required in almost all 50 states, and lawyers must comply with these rules in order to remain licensed members of their state bars. Depending on the state, lawyers are required to spend upward of 15 to 30 hours per reporting period earning CLE credit in substantive, professional responsibility, malpractice, ethics, diversity and other areas of law. Some states require attorneys to report in every year while others have three-year periods. A few states allow for self-study, while others mandate more interactive live education. A handful of states have “new lawyer,” “basic skills” or “bridge the gap” requirements that typically have to be fulfilled within one or two years of admission to the bar, while others have no such requirement. A minority of states give credit for “other activities” such as attending American Bar Association-accredited law school classes, judging law competitions and performing pro bono legal work for an approved pro bono provider, while others have a smaller list of approved activities. Some states allow credit for writing articles and giving speeches, while others do not. Several states allow attorneys to get credit for in-house education, while others do not allow credit for law firm-centric programs. A number of states require individual applications for CLE courses that must be paid for by the attorney him/herself, while others allow for a sponsor to pay for attorney credit. In short, CLE rules run a wide gamut. Although it may seem like a small price to pay for maintaining one’s license, for a busy lawyer living under the pressure of the billable hour, finding time to monitor and achieve compliance with the rules can be difficult. Understanding one state’s CLE rules alone can leave attorneys with more questions than answers, and many lawyers maintain licenses in multiple states. As a result, attorneys look to their law firms to provide some form of CLE support. The level and commitment of CLE support provided by law firms can vary significantly. While some firms choose to remain on the periphery, opting to take no part in their attorneys’ CLE activities, others provide a wide range of professional development and CLE assistance, from tracking to internal programming. At one end of the spectrum, a firm may choose to provide a tracking system for its lawyers. The level and sophistication of such a tracking system can differ significantly from firm to firm. The most sophisticated systems are online, complete with Internet and BlackBerry access, computerized compliance reminders and CLE profiles that detail every CLE activity engaged in by each attorney. More commonly, firms offer a more homegrown tracking method that might include CLE tables and tracking folders maintained by the attorneys themselves or other law firm staff. In determining whether to institute a formalized tracking system, firms should consider whether they will track CLE compliance in the states in which they have offices only or in all states in which attorneys have licenses. Once this preliminary decision is made, any firm interested in a tracking mechanism should research the state CLE rules in question to determine which information should be accounted for. For example, in some states, it is important to track attorneys’ bar admission dates in order to determine compliance periods, while others determine compliance periods based on the attorney’s birth date. In either case, assisting the lawyers even at this purely organizational level can produce positive feelings and ease fears before and after the conclusion of CLE compliance periods. Online programs and libraries In addition to providing tracking support, firms can also purchase, provide and even house CLE-approved online programs and materials to help their lawyers achieve compliance. CLE providers offer several online options. Additionally, if a firm provides in-house CLE programs, it can convert and offer the courses online. Such courses offer attorneys the opportunity to access the programs at their convenience. Additionally, several firms maintain CLE libraries. Such libraries house DVDs, audiotapes and recorded in-house programs that have passed state approval. One positive reason for maintaining a CLE library is that it offers attorneys the convenience of accessing the programs when they want. To that end, firms can develop systems that allow attorneys to check out materials and earn their credit from home or even while traveling. Firms can set up intranet pages that showcase information about in-house and outside programs complete with program materials so that attorneys can easily view the firm’s CLE collection. In states that do not allow for self-study, attorneys can organize groups to view and participate in such programs. Before offering attorneys such programs, it is important to thoroughly research whether the program meets approval for the state in question, however, and whether the courses need individual approval. Firms should not assume that because the program has been approved for CLE in one state, it has or will be approved in another. Firms can also assist in the CLE process by identifying and/or sponsoring attendance and speaker participation in external CLE-approved seminars and courses. Courses are offered through local bar associations, national bar organizations, universities, CLE-approved providers, as well as other law firms. They can range in price depending on their length and level but usually fall, per attorney, somewhere from $65 for an hour-long course to $2,000 for a multiday seminar. Firms can create an intranet device devoted to dissemination of CLE course information or send out e-mails when there is a program of interest. Attorneys themselves can also share such information with their colleagues. Such promotion and identification can relieve attorneys of the burden of spending time investigating their CLE options. Firms interested in paying for attorney attendance at external seminars should consider some sort of a formal approval process. In some cases, firms choose to allocate a certain amount of money for each attorney that is earmarked for CLE activities. Other firms have chosen to institute course-by-course application procedures. These firms have set up formal guidelines for seminar attendance that require attorneys to apply to firm leaders. In some cases, these firms require attorneys to share information they learn at each seminar with their colleagues through department memos or by conducting in-house lectures on the learned topic. Hosting providers in-house Another way firms can help their attorneys comply with CLE rules is by identifying and hosting programs offered by CLE-approved providers within their firms. Aside from the convenience such programs can provide, this method can be extremely cost-effective. For the same cost as sending a few attorneys to one or two seminars, by hosting a provider a firm can ensure that as many as 20 to 30 attorneys receive CLE credit for similar programs. Depending on the CLE rules at issue and whether the provider is amenable to the idea, firms may even include attorneys from other firm locations via audio or video conference. Similarly, firms may consider partnering with another law firm or agency in order to defray costs and offer additional programming. When it comes to CLE providers, law firms have several options. Large-scale commercial providers offer a wide range of programming. Additionally, there are several independent providers that conduct seminars in various areas of expertise, including legal writing, public speaking, finance for lawyers, business development and ethics. Frequently, firms work through organizations such as NALP (formerly the National Association for Law Placement) and the Professional Development Consortium, among others, to exchange information on programs and presenters. Generally, independent providers are open to law firm representatives observing a sample course in order to assess whether the program is appropriate for their firm’s audience. Whether a firm decides to utilize a commercial or independent provider, it should conduct a thorough interview with the provider to determine what is needed to make the program successful. For example, a law firm representative should determine whether the provider will need a complete audio-visual setup and what kind of space will be most effective for the presentation. The provider might also prefer to have a wireless microphone, a podium or any other specific request. In addition to the mechanisms mentioned previously, some firms opt to create internal universities to help their lawyers achieve CLE compliance. Such programs can be organized departmentally, by industry or by office. The benefits of such programs are manifold. They provide lawyers with the opportunity to earn CLE credit without leaving the building and offer senior lawyers the opportunity to teach and mentor junior lawyers. Additionally, such programs may provide a valuable recruiting tool, appealing to generations X and Y who are focused on their professional development. On the flip side, such comprehensive programs require buy-in from top firm management and significant attorney and staff resources to develop and manage the programming. Costs associated with this type of programming include attorney time to develop and present programs; staff to coordinate the sessions; expenses for food; and the cost of becoming a CLE provider or applying for individual course credit. Gaining CLE provider status and/or applying for course credit can be an extremely onerous process. Firms need to assess the number and frequency of its programming to glean whether programming at this level of commitment is realistic. Ultimately, the decision by a firm to play a role in an attorney’s CLE process at any level requires an examination of several considerations. First, a firm must decide what level of responsibility it wishes to assume in the CLE process. Some firms offer CLE services to their attorneys but communicate that the ultimate responsibility of maintaining compliance with the state bar rests with the individual attorney. Other firms take a more proactive approach, working directly with state CLE compliance departments on behalf of their lawyers. In either case, it is important to clearly communicate the firm’s role up front. Many firms have created formal CLE policies for this reason. Such policies can be distributed to attorneys when they enter the firm and can be housed on a firm’s intranet for easy reference. Second, no matter what CLE assistance a firm provides, the effort must have buy-in and support from top firm management. In order to make the necessary commitment, a firm’s message must be consistent. Additionally, those in charge of such an effort must have the necessary financial and staff support to move from theory to practice. Firms interested in implementing programs need to do a thorough needs assessment and submit formal proposals that flesh out costs, needed resources and time frames. Third, before implementing any CLE program, a firm should attempt to understand the needs and interests of the attorneys and the firm’s culture. If the attorneys have traditionally tracked their own CLE and seem comfortable with the process, the firm’s resources may be better spent buying CLE videos or subscribing to an online service. Or if attorneys frequently attend outside CLE programs, an internal university may not be a viable option. In sum, firms should take their cues from the attorneys to determine the best course of action. Sharon Meit Abrahams, who holds a Doctor of Education in Education degree, is the director of professional development at McDermott, Will & Emery, based in the Miami office. Jacqueline Goldberg Meyer, a lawyer who holds a teaching certificate, was formerly a professional development manager at the firm.

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