Combining Learning and Entertainment: The new CLE?

Volume 28 Number 5

By

Whoever said CLE wasn’t a Mickey Mouse operation hasn’t talked to some of the members of the Nassau County (N.Y.) Bar Association.

“There was no magic to it,” says Deena Ehrlich, the bar’s executive director, discounting thoughts that some of Tinkerbell’s pixie dust was used to attract about 30 bar members and their families to Walt Disney World a couple of years ago. “People had a wonderful time. It was superb. What better place is there to be with kids?”

And, she adds, “We’re always looking for new and interesting ways to deliver CLE.”
For many bar members, the acronym CLE conjures up images of listening to dull speakers in stuffy conference rooms or dank auditoriums. Ehrlich is hardly alone in her quest to develop lively topics in different settings in order to drum up interest in an area that is not only necessary for bar members, but is important to bar associations that depend on CLE income.

Disney World, London, Cozumel, and riverboat casinos are just some of the places where bar associations have recently held CLE events. Some associations also have a flair for the dramatic, staging plays and skits to give CLE a more interesting twist.

While the locales may seem a little far-flung and the method of delivery a little offbeat, bar leaders say that in most cases, the extra effort is worth it if it draws more interest from members—and a little income, as well.

Cruising, pubbing—and CLE?

When the Nassau County bar began thinking of other locales for CLE, Ehrlich says, board members said they did not want the bar to become a travel agency. So the bar turned to a professional travel agent—and it didn’t have to go far. Stuart Cooper, a lawyer and association member, runs a travel agency with his wife in Baldwin, N.Y.

One of the first CLE travel packages Cooper helped arrange was a Caribbean cruise in early 2002. After overcoming hurdles posed by the September 11 terrorist attacks and a bankrupt cruise company, the bar attracted several members and their families for a successful cruise. The bar has since held a second cruise, this one to a different part of the Caribbean.

“A ship is a great place to do CLE,” Cooper says. “The days you’re at sea, you’ve got a captive audience.”

The first cruise was followed up a few months later with a four-day trip to Disney World over Memorial Day weekend. While bar members spent two full mornings in CLE, their families enjoyed Disney theme parks and attractions. “When Mickey and Minnie came to have breakfast with the kids and the parents, that was the highlight of the trip,” Cooper says.

Also included in the specially priced package were accommodations at Disney hotels and special events such as a dessert table and premium seating for a fireworks/light show at EPCOT. The trip helped generate “some profit” for the bar, according to Ehrlich, and plans are tentatively being made for a similar trip this year.

Another Nassau bar CLE excursion went even further afield—to London. Mixed in with CLE on comparative justice systems were trips to Buckingham Palace, the Royal Courts of Justice, and the Middle Temple Hall, as well as cocktail parties, pub stops, and shopping excursions. The six-night package cost $1,599 per person, Cooper says, adding that it was an enjoyable trip despite the fact that attendance was affected by the war in Iraq. “Of all the CLE things I’ve taken, this was just a hoot. It was fun,” he says.

Next up for the bar is a second CLE trip to London, scheduled for the week of Memorial Day. Also in the works is a second Disney visit, likely to take place in the fall; the bar is also discussing a possible weekend CLE trip to Las Vegas.

High-seas education

Also taking to the high seas has been the Tarrant County (Texas) Bar Association. Two years in a row, the association organized CLE cruises that attracted dozens of members and their families, says Patricia Graham, the bar’s executive director.

The cruise idea was first launched in 2001 by then bar president Wayne Ward, who wanted to give members an opportunity to gain CLE credits in a relaxing environment. Word spread quickly, thanks to mass faxes and e-mails, leading to an expansion of the original booking. In January 2002, 117 bar and family members left Port Galveston, Texas, for a five-day cruise that included stops in Cozumel and Cancún, both in Mexico.

For the two days the ship was at sea, live CLE was provided from 9 a.m. to noon each day, and videos were provided from 2 to 5 p.m., covering topics such as real estate, ethics, elder law, and criminal law, Graham says.

“Everybody loved it,” she says. “We didn’t have one complaint that I heard of.” Not only did the cruise generate more than $9,000 in profit for the bar, but the idea also earned an award from the State Bar of Texas.

A second CLE cruise held the following year presented some challenges, Graham says. The five-day cruise was expanded to seven days, likely contributing to a smaller turnout, she notes.

The cruise will likely not be repeated this year, Graham notes, not because of these challenges, but because the bar’s centennial has been a major focus for 2004. The cruise is a possibility for 2005, she adds.

A CLE gamble

Instead of a voyage on the high seas, the Shreveport (La.) Bar Association has been going down to the river for one of its most popular CLE events, at the Hollywood Casino, a riverboat/mainland complex. First held in 2001, the annual CLE seminar brings state, federal, and local judges together for a look at judiciary developments. The seminar attracted 250 lawyers last October, some from Texas and Louisiana—which offered CLE credit—says Patti Guin, the bar’s executive director. That seminar netted $44,300 for the bar, she adds.

“This was just a refreshing change,” she says. “We wanted to give [members] a little something extra to get them to come to the seminar, and it worked.” While the association obtains a block of rooms at the casino’s hotel for the two-day seminar, Guin says, there are no official bar events in the casino—only at the hotel/conference area of the complex.

Former bar president Haller Jackson, who helped organize the first conference, says the event has been well received, save for the handful of calls complaining about holding a legal seminar at a gambling institution. That aspect of the seminar was discussed at length before selecting the casino complex, he says, “but the facilities are used for all sorts of charitable events in the community.”

CLE takes center stage

In Toledo, Ohio, bar members don’t need to travel too far to find some entertaining CLE. They only need to go as far as a local auditorium to catch some of their fellow lawyers, along with professional actors, in situational skits and shows that provide not only laughs, but CLE credits as well.

The vignettes, penned by Toledo Bar Association member Bob Morris, have been taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to CLE since the mid-1990s, when Morris was looking for something other than “the talking heads” that he says dominate most CLE sessions. With characters such Lotta Bareknuckles, Willie Bluffem, Cal Martini, and Bentley L. Bowe, Morris uses humor to cover CLE topics such professionalism, ethics, and substance abuse.

The skits have been drawing rave reviews from attendees, says Morris, as well as from lawyers throughout Ohio who have earned CLE credit via videotapes. The shows are also popular with lawyers looking to land spots in the productions. “These lawyers really enjoy it, and it adds a dimension that no other organization has,” Morris says.

The shows are also profitable for the Toledo bar, says Cher Carrothers, the bar’s CLE director, although that’s not the prime motivator. “It’s so nice listening to the audience laughing,” she says. “They get so tired of going to the same old lectures. This is just such a different program for them. They get a kick out of it.”

While the Toledo bar uses yuks to draw a CLE crowd, the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center at Touro College and the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Bar Association’s Suffolk Academy of Law have successfully teamed up to sponsor Off the Meter, a dramatic play written by Touro Prof. Peter Zablotsky.

The play delves into the area of ethics and professional responsibility and is followed by a discussion on those and other topics, says Lynn Cahalan, director of CLE at the school.

Echoing the sentiments of many CLE directors and bar leaders, Cahalan says, “People were so happy to have the opportunity to obtain CLE credits in a nontraditional format.”

[Side bar]

Looking to mix it up? Here’s a how-to

Thinking about making CLE a mix of work and play? Here are a few things you might want to keep in mind, as suggested by some bar leaders who have been there:

Consider hiring a professional travel agent. Travel agents are often in the best position to find good deals, and they do the legwork, says Deena Ehrlich, executive director of the Nassau County Bar Association. “We’re not in the travel business,” she notes.

Think about using a professional learning organization to handle the details of the trip, says Patricia Graham, executive director of the Tarrant County Bar Association in Texas. Among the most prominent are University at Sea (www.universityatsea.com) and Continuing Education Inc. (www.continuingeducation.net).

Plan ahead. Start working on the project nine to 12 months in advance to get good rates, trip organizers say. That also provides plenty of time to promote the trip.

If you’re going far afield, be prepared for the fact that world events may alter those well-laid plans. The Nassau County Bar Association’s first CLE cruise was affected by September 11, and nearly half of the prospective travelers signed up for its first London trip withdrew their deposits when the invasion of Iraq made them leery of travel.

Provide a good mix of CLE topics to attract a wide variety of members, Graham says. And be sure to provide a good mix of sightseeing, recreational, and social activities for members and their families, says Stuart Cooper, a travel agent and member of the Nassau County bar.

Find sponsors, such as local law firms, for onboard receptions and cocktail hours. That not only lowers costs for the bar, but brings people together in social settings, Graham says.

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