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Six years after continuing legal education became mandatory in New York state, a number of attorneys say they still struggle to complete the required 24 credit hours every two years. CLE committee leaders at local bar associations said they have seen lawyers become too busy or too lazy, or simply forget and put off their obligation until the deadline. The burden of CLE appears to weigh most heavily on small law firms, which typically have limited funds and spare time. Large firms and district attorneys’ offices have become accredited to provide their own CLE programs, and attorneys at non-profit groups and government agencies receive steep discounts for CLE programs offered by Legal Services of New York City’s Legal Support Unit. But many small firms eat the cost of the courses offered by bar associations, commercial entities, vendors and other accredited providers. Even at a relatively modest price of $20 per credit, paying for the 24 required credits more than doubles the cost of maintaining a license, adding $480 to the biennial $350 registration fee. “The main thing is to not wait until the end,” said Daniel Kornstein, a partner with 20-lawyer firm Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard who has presented CLE lectures on legal writing. Many lawyers said the important thing is to have a flexible plan. Attorneys should create a separate file for attorney registration papers and check it every year on their birthday, suggests Lawrence DiGiovanna, a solo practitioner and member of the State of New York Grievance Committee for the Second and Eleventh Judicial Districts. Solo practitioner Joseph Tremiti said he checks available CLE offerings every three months, and selects programs based on his financial situation during that quarter as well as what he might gain from the program. In addition to useful information, attorneys said, CLE can offer networking and resume-building opportunities. Mandatory CLE events provide a wide variety of networking opportunities for meeting judges, lawyers, vendors, and even potential clients, depending on the venue and program. Yet all programs are not created equal. The Federal Bar Council, associated with the Inns of Court, is considered by many to offer the ultimate networking opportunity. The council hosts annual Bench and Bar Retreats in places such as the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa in Old Saybrook, Conn., and the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai in Kona, Hawaii. Steven Kobre, of Kobre & Kim, an eight-attorney firm, said socializing with federal judges at these programs helps him understand how they think and analyze arguments in court. But some have criticized the retreats’ steep price tags, while contending the council does not offer the same access and privilege to lawyers without deep pockets. Kim Bailey, a senior administrator for the council, said the Federal Bar Council, which serves the Second Circuit, has a financial hardship policy as required by state law. Attorneys whose income is under $30,000 can file a hardship application to attend CLE programs for half-price, said. But the hardship policy does not apply to annual retreats, she said. Bailey said 400 federal judges and the top 100 major law firms belong to the council. She estimated that about 50 member attorneys are not affiliated with a large firm. Still, state court practitioners have plenty of opportunities to meet judges. State and local judges regularly participate in events sponsored by the New York State Bar Association, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the New York County Lawyers’ Association, other bar groups and commercial providers. Members of the Columbian Lawyers Association in Brooklyn, for example, include judges and lawyers. Members receive one CLE credit hour for each monthly dinner meeting. Dino Mastropietro, of five-lawyer firm Lozner & Mastropietro, said he can complete all his CLE credits just by attending every meeting. He also has attended intensive weekend seminars. “In two days, you can get 12 credits — a full year’s worth,” he said. POTENTIAL CLIENTS “Lawyers are always attracted to networking possibilities,” observed Michael Greenberg, one of three attorneys in the new firm of Greenberg Nicoletta & Stein. The opportunity to meet in-house counsel and principals at companies — “a crowd that’s not just lawyers” — offers the possibility of new business connections, he said. Greenberg, a real estate attorney, admitted that since he entered small-firm practice last spring, he favors the free CLE programs offered by vendors like title companies and banks. He will, however, spend more than $1,500 to attend a three-day leasing seminar in Washington, D.C. “All the heavyweights of commercial leasing go down every year,” he said. “It’s a chance to rub shoulders with the best people in your field.” Prestigious symposia, a challenging pro bono case, or teaching a CLE seminar all enhance a lawyer’s resume, and may count toward the mandatory CLE credit hours. Douglas Guevara, director of the New York County Lawyers’ Association CLE Institute, and other local bar group CLE committee leaders said an increasing number of attorneys want to teach CLE courses. There is no pay, but an instructor receives three credits for every credit hour taught, as well as professional visibility. IMPROVING COURSE QUALITY After years of attorney complaints that standard CLE presentations are a waste of time, directors at local bar associations concurred that the quality of seminars is improving. Competition for teaching spots has motivated lecturers to improve their presentations, and the more experienced lecturers are shifting from reading case notes to interactive programs. A good presenter uses humor and real-life examples of how the lesson applies in court, said Philip Segal, of Segal & Greenberg, a four-attorney firm. Segal, a former family court judge who teaches at New York Law School, frequently lectures at CLE programs presented by both commercial entities and bar associations. Mastropietro agrees. “Live demonstrations are probably the most captivating,” he said. “Whether they be practice techniques or trial techniques.” A mock argument or examination, he added, enlivens a presentation. Bar associations said they choose topics and instructors based primarily on member interest. For example, the City Bar will host a law practice management symposium for small-firm attorneys in November. CLE DOLLARS & SENSE Saving money is another advantage to planning ahead. Many providers offer discounts for early registration, as well as financial aid. New revisions to the CLE rules, which became effective Sept. 1, require providers seeking accreditation to have a financial aid policy. The revised rules also prohibit pro bono credit for legal services provided by assigned counsel who are paid for their services, and for attorneys acting within the scope of their employment at a legal services organization. With CLE seminars ranging in price from a free bank-sponsored program on estate planning to an $8,000 retreat to Hawaii, several lawyers said they have no trouble fulfilling their requirements at a minimum cost. Most bar associations offer steep CLE discounts as membership incentives. The County Lawyers, for instance, offers discount coupons for new members and the Brooklyn Bar periodically offers free ethics seminars. Free CLE credits are also available for volunteer lawyers who perform legal services with a New York-approved pro bono CLE provider. New York Legal Assistance Group and Sanctuary for Families, for example, provide both malpractice insurance and CLE credits for volunteer lawyers. ‘CATCH-UP’ CLE All is not lost for the attorney who lacks CLE credits when it is time to re-register. First, the lawyer must contact the CLE board to request an extension. Under certain circumstances, the board will grant an extension of up to 90 days. Attorney registration forms are ordinarily sent two months before they are due — giving procrastinators a last-minute opportunity to get in under the wire. Many CLE providers offer pre-recorded seminars on audio or videotape or DVD. Attorneys said they listen to the tapes at home or in the car. Many organizations provide online courses that can be scheduled at the user’s convenience. Convenience, of course, has its price: Previously recorded presentations and online courses cost about 25 percent more than live programs.

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