I have to admit that I like learning. For me, learning means both teaching and being taught. I get bored easily, but find mastering a new idea, relationship, legal principle or concepts great fun. I am astounded by the complexity of the world and how every day brings new challenges and problems which need to be addressed within the matrix of the law.
Things are so complex, and laws so quickly morphing to adapt to social and political pressures that it would seem that any business that offers a guide through the thicket would be akin to printing money. Yet for many bar associations, continuing legal education is a dying business. How can that be?
One answer is that information, at the fairly superficial level of the traditional one- or two-hour CLE course, is now readily available on a 24/7 basis for free. Podcasts, virtual seminars, self-study, instructional videos, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other media mean that anyone who wants to learn something, including some really complex and difficult things such as advanced electrical engineering and computer science, can access online content taught by the best minds in the world without ever taking off their pajamas. Legal CLE is headed in the same direction. I mean, I am an OK lecturer, and I can give you the basics of a subject in an hour or two, but why would you pay to listen to me if you could take an ethics course taught online by one of the true luminaries of the profession?
Another innovation driving the traditional CLE providers into the weeds is "paid presenter" media, where folks like me pay for the privilege of teaching in the hope of attracting a few paying clients. One fellow who runs such courses told me that it is very profitable, so much so that he pays the cost of getting his lectures certified for MCLE credit for every attendee. Oh, and did I mention that he also gives breakfast and lunch to the audience? And they get it all (food and education) for free! It does not take a marketing genius to see whose plan is going to attract the biggest audience.
Friends who do very high-level law and complex lawyering tell me that there is still a good market for intense, deep multi-day seminars where the audience gets immersed in a subject and the chance to interact with the best and the brightest from around the country and the profession. But for many work-a-day lawyers, the time and expense required to travel and participate in such an enterprise makes it a rare treat.
There will also continue to be a market for skills training for new entrants into the field, as law schools have never taught much in the way of practical lawyering, such as opening and managing a clients’ funds account and hiring and managing employees. But I predict that such subjects will become more common in law school curricula as the number of well-paying big-firm jobs continues to shrink. For many students, the new reality is that they will spend their entire professional lives in solo and small-firm environments. They will demand practical training for the fortune they pay for their educations.
I was just at a national meeting where bar executives were pointing out that "non-dues" revenue sources such as CLE are falling off dramatically and are not predicted to ever return. What market continues to exist for these courses will increasingly be served by large providers who have huge economies of scale and who can provide electronic educational experiences for pennies per attendee. The MOOC phenomenon in colleges has resulted in virtual classrooms with tens and hundreds of thousands of students. Every student logged in on a computer is one less seminar participant for the CLE provider.
Small bar associations and specialty bars really cannot duplicate the online experience; they just don’t have the resources. But they can draw on their memberships to put together fewer, but deeper, programs. And they can work together to offer their members alternatives, such as on-line sharing platforms where practitioners can exchange and access forms, ideas, advice and experiences.
A new friend was sharing with me a vision he has of the future for the small firm and solo lawyer—one where these folks can make a good living by offering very reasonably priced services to the middle class through the use of technology and shared resources. I think he is on to something. If I had any money, I think I would buy stock in a company helping to make this happen. •