Death, taxes, and CLE are three certainties in the life of the practicing lawyer. Experienced lawyers can argue endlessly over which of the three is the most inconvenient. Simply put, the yearly double-digit minimum continuing legal education requirement in CLE mandatory states cannot be avoided, unlike an uncomfortable phone call. The annual deadline for completion of the requirement leaves many lawyers scrambling to meet the minimum number of educational hours required by their state bars. As the day of reckoning approaches, ever-elusive ethics hours become hot commodities. And, amazingly, self-study hours increase exponentially nationwide in a matter of days.
In meeting the minimum, a young solo or small-firm lawyer can be overwhelmed by the multitude of CLE programs available locally and nationally by various vendors and organizations. For better or worse, the least expensive and most convenient options can often determine CLE selection. For young lawyers with crammed calendars and tight budgets, a better and more informed decision can be made much easier with a little research and some forethought.
CLE programs can be categorized in many ways, but for the most part they fall into one of three types: substantive reviews, practicums, or recurring events. Substantive reviews of particular areas of the law are often called institutes or conferences. Most substantive reviews include introductory, nuts-and-bolts material for young lawyers in addition to more advanced material. If an appealing CLE does not cover the basics, consider brushing up on the area of law before attending. Aside from honing in on interesting area in their field, young lawyers should research the program as they would when choosing between classes in law school. Important factors in this research include the various topics to be covered, the faculty, and the intended audience. For instance, the size and age of the audience can help or hinder networking opportunities. Researching the faculty is particularly important. CLE faculty should have good reputations, as well as be organized and efficient speakers. Ask around or look online if there are any doubts. Don’t be afraid to ask for reimbursement if a featured faculty member is substituted at the last moment. The program’s environment should also be taken in account. One lawyer may get more out of a small classroom environment with free-flowing interaction between the CLE faculty and attendees, while another may learn more by taking exhaustive notes in the anonymity of a large auditorium.
Practicums are often described as workshops or advocacy seminars, which usually involve sessions focused on training and strategy. Practicums include topics regarding communication, negotiation, leadership, business development, and pro bono work. Successful practitioners often teach these programs, rather than law school faculty. Again, research is important, as the practitioners should inform and instruct, as well as inspire action on the methods taught. These programs often utilize paired or group exercises intended to make the ideas expressed more concrete. Practicums regarding pro bono work offer benefits especially helpful to young lawyers. First, the fees are less than most other programs and are usually waived if the attendee commits to take a case within a certain amount of time, e.g., one case in a year or even one case every year. Second, the practical experience gained from the subsequent pro bono work is immeasurable.
Recurring events are often organized by respective state, city, or county bar associations. Monthly section meetings featuring speakers or a panel over breakfast or lunch are examples. These shorter programs allow young lawyers to target specific issues within an area of law. Such programs recur throughout the year, usually attract a more manageable audience size, and offer opportunities for continuity and networking that may not be as available at other programs. Lawyers will almost fill their yearly requirements if they attend one of these recurring one or two-hour CLE events a month. If convenience is a big concern, the ABA offers a few monthly online CLE events for free, e.g., the ABA Journal’s ABA Connection Teleconference CLE and the ABA Section of Business Law’s Business Law Today (BLT) Live Teleconference and Live Audio Webcast (complimentary for the first 250 registrants who are members of the section). These programs serve as alternative options for young solos and small firm lawyers who don’t have the time or money to knock out yearly CLE hours with a costly two- or three-day long program.
The reality is that CLE programs range in cost from zero to sixty dollars per hour. The bill for a day or two of CLE with travel runs from the hundreds and into to the thousands. Fortunately there are ways to defray the expense of CLE. Eliminating the travel is good start, but this may also eliminate the most appealing programs. Young solo and small-firm lawyers can apply for full and partial scholarships for many programs sponsored by the ABA. New lawyers may also receive discounted rates for programs sponsored by their state bars. In addition, programs sponsored by young lawyer associations are usually less expensive than other comparable programs.
CLE programs should be a break from the everyday work schedule, not a hassle. By utilizing this information, a young solo or small firm attorney can aim to reduce the stress on their schedule and budget sometimes caused by this professional obligation.
Kirby D. Hopkins is an associate with Drucker, Rutledge & Smith, L.L.P., with offices in Houston and The Woodlands, Texas. He practices in the areas of business litigation and appellate law, concentrating on banking. He begins his term on the board of directors of the Houston Young Lawyers Association this May. He may be reached at email@example.com.