Bret Parker

At a time of rapid change in the legal profession, New York bar associations have come up with an offer that they’re hoping will lure members back to the fold: CLE classes for free and at steep discounts.

The New York City Bar announced Friday that most of its hundreds of CLE classes will be free for new graduates, newly admitted lawyers, in-house/corporate counsel, academics, nonprofit lawyers, judges and their staffs. The rest of the association’s more than 24,000 members can choose to pay an annual fee between $399 and $499 for unlimited classes.

Simultaneously, the Nassau County Bar Association’s new president, who took over Friday, announced that it won’t be charging for classes taken at its Mineola headquarters. And starting this fall, the New York State Bar Association is introducing  an all-access pass at a flat rate for on-demand online courses.

CLE classes, once a cash cow for bar associations, are now a much harder sell because of competition from online providers and firms that provide in-house training. Despite the low or no-cost options, few bar associations have made classes free and none on the scope of New York City. (The Florida Bar Association began providing a handful of free online courses in 2011.)

Bret Parker, executive director of the New York City Bar, said he’s been thinking about revamping the CLE fee structure for the last couple of years because of the lower-cost competition. Although some lawyers can meet all their CLE requirements for free without leaving their offices, “That’s not enough to make  you a well-rounded fully engaged lawyer,” Parker said.

“While our membership has been stable, we think it has the opportunity to increase and the more members that are engaged here at the city bar the stronger our voice when we speak publicly for the profession or advocate on legal issues,” he said.

The NCBA also sees the free classes as a way to increase membership. It has decided to offer classes at its headquarters and seminars during committee meetings and Bridge the Gap weekend for free. Members will also be able to receive 12 free credits through CD/DVD rentals of seminars recorded live. At the same time, the association slightly raised the dues some of its 4,500 members pay.

“The Nassau County Bar Association, as many other similar professional organizations, continues to face financial challenges and competition for its members, particularly among newer lawyers, ” said Elena Karabatos, who takes over as president today.

“Providing free CLE seminars is an incredible benefit for all our members,” she said. “It encourages them to leave their desks and computers and gather at our wonderful building, where they can interact with the colleagues they work with as well as develop lifelong friendships.”

Thomas Foley, dean of the NCBA Academy of Law, said he hopes the free classes will ”encourage the people who are on the sidelines to get involved and join us.” But he acknowledges the decision was made partly out of necessity.

“Over time, our numbers have definitely trended downward,” he said. “If we kept trending in this direction, we would be dealing with a bar association that would no longer have an Academy of Law.”