A task force that was asked to examine whether Connecticut should adopt mandatory continuing legal education has decided the time is not right for MCLE.

The Rules Committee Task Force to Study Minimum Continuing Legal Education is expected to make a formal presentation to the full Rules Committee next week. According to state bar leaders and Judicial Branch records, task force members expressed concerns about the financial impact of an extensive MCLE program on the state’s attorneys and the lack of empirical evidence indicating there is a higher quality of lawyering in states with mandatory programs.

Instead, Connecticut’s task force is instead proposing a slow ease into MCLE, starting with a one-day "boot camp" course for new lawyers only. That means Connecticut will likely remain one of four states without mandatory, or minimum as it is now often called, continuing legal education.

Rhode Island recently created an MCLE program and Massachusetts is on the brink of enacting one there.

The task force proposal is a far cry from one that had been endorsed the Connecticut Bar Association. Under that concept, all lawyers would be required to annually certify in writing that they had taken 36 hours of CLE during the past three years. Some 21 of those hours would be self-study, and the remainder would involve more formal classes and seminars.

CBA President Barry Hawkins is not a member of the task force, but has been kept apprised of its progress. He said the task force proposal to not support a full MCLE program at this time was "likely to be adopted" by the Superior Court Rules Committee. The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 26.

"It’s my understanding that the task force is advocating for a mini-boot camp for newly admitted lawyers," Hawkins said. "And there would be an [annual] voluntary professional day in each of the courthouses, with the theme of the day devoted to professional development and increasing one’s ethical awareness."

Hawkins and other CBA leaders repeated their view that it’s time for Connecticut to join the rest of the country by requiring lawyers to keep up-to-date on standardized professional training. They say there is overwhelming support in CBA ranks for MCLE. But other attorneys beg to differ, noting that some regional bar associations have taken a stand against MCLE and many individual attorneys strongly oppose it.

As for the boot camp, "I’m not going to say it’s a bad idea, but it doesn’t sound like [the boot camp] is going to be up and running any time soon," said Brad Gallant, the immediate past president of the CBA an MCLE supporter. "And of course, it doesn’t address the idea of lawyers developing their skills to meet the changing needs of their clients."

Small Firm Concern

Minutes of recent task force meetings confirmed plans to propose a boot camp, but no MCLE. Specific questions about the proposal were referred to Superior Court Judge Elliot Solomon, the task force chair. He was unavailable for comment last week.

Last year, the Rules Committee tabled the latest of several proposals for MCLE brought by the Connecticut Bar Association. The decision to delay action was based on concerns by opponents that the cost of MCLE would be too onerous for young lawyers and those in small firms.

At the recommendation of the committee, Chief Justice Chase Rogers created the task force to study the feasibility of bringing MCLE to the state. The task force is comprised of 10 lawyers from various practice groups and experience levels. Solomon and Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis represent the bench.

Back in October, the task force found itself deeply divided. Solomon requested reports from those who supported and opposed MCLE. Representing those in favor was Deputy Chief State’s Attorney John Russotto. His idea was to make MCLE more user-friendly by using an honor system of self-reporting. Under Russotto’s proposal, no one would check to see if a lawyer had actually completed professional courses unlees a grievance complaint on another matter was filed against them.

On the other side, MCLE opponents on the task force cotinued to cite financial concerns, as CLE classes can cost up to $900 apiece. They also could find no studies showing that MCLE has improved the quality of the bar in other states.

After much discussion, the task force members compromised on the basic skills course for new lawyers and an annual "professional day" for all.

According to meeting minutes, the basic skills course would be offered to an estimated 700 new attorneys each year. Staff would have to be hired to design the curriculum and run the program. An online version of the course would also be developed. Estimates are that it would take at least a year to get the whole program running.

According to the task force recommendation for "professional day," breakout sessions would be held during which lawyers would discuss "hot topics" of interest to practitioners of civil, criminal, family and probate law. The groups would then meet to discuss major court rulings and practice book revisions for the year. Normal court operations would be suspended for the day, while the conferences would be held.

One detail that has not yet been determined is exactly who will administer the programs and how much they would cost to the Judicial Branch or bar groups. "It’s not clear to me as to who will pay for this," Hawkins said. He referred to the professional day and basic skills course, as "MCLE light."

"I’m personally not changing my position," Hawkins said. "My position is advocating for Connecticut to follow the lead of 46 other states and have a requirement that all lawyers, with very few exceptions, be able to show that they have taken advanced training over a three-year period."

70 Percent Opposed

New Haven County Bar Association Association President Sung-Ho Hwang inherited the group’s longstanding opposition to MCLE. He said a recent survey of the group’s members mirrored earlier studies. "We polled our members and they are opposed by about 70 percent," he said.

While no one is opposed to learning more about his or her practice area, the cost of mandatory courses and a possible fee to support the program is the tipping point, Hwang said. As far as the new proposal, he said New Haven bar leaders have not had time to discuss it yet.

Not all solo practitioners are against required legal training. Renee C. Bauer, a solo family law practitioner in Hamden, said an MCLE requirement would encourage lawyers keeping up to date on the law and add the benefit of networking opportunities. "You get to learn and refresh what you already know about a certain area of law and learn about other areas," she said. "I don’t see a downside to that."

Another side of the solo attorney perspective was offered by Susan Cartier Liebel, who runs a service that consults lawyers on how to create solo practices, called Solo Practice University.

"I’ve never been a proponent of mandates," Liebel said. "To mandate MCLE would be a hardship for attorneys who are already struggling. It’s not just a struggle financially, but it’s the struggle to find the time."•