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Sybil Procedure: Eliminating in-person CLEs is a terrible idea

Sybil Dunlop//November 26, 2019//

Sybil Procedure: Eliminating in-person CLEs is a terrible idea

Sybil Dunlop//November 26, 2019//

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Sybil Dunlop
Sybil Dunlop

The beat goes on. And right now, there are folks beating a drum to eliminate the requirement for in-person CLE. Specifically, the Minnesota Supreme Court is considering a petition that would allow MN attorneys to fulfill their 45-credit CLE requirement with up to 45 hours of on-demand (archived) programs. Attorneys would not be required to attend any live/in-person programs.

I think this is a terrible idea.

As a disclaimer, I teach several CLEs, for Minnesota CLE, but also the MSBA and HCBA every year. I clearly have a dog in this fight. But since none of these folks pay me, it’s not a financial dog. So if I’m not getting rich off of CLE, why do I hate the idea? I’m worried that eliminating the requirement of in-person learning will make our profession worse.

At the threshold, I know that I learn better in a traditional classroom setting. There’s lots of research (many of it by folks who hawk on-line classes) suggesting that online learning is just as good as traditional learning. But online CLEs can’t compare to an online college course. We aren’t getting graded for CLEs, so the incentive to pay strict attention for a grade isn’t there. For this reason, when I watch an online CLE, I multitask. I respond to emails, I edit briefs, sometimes I even take a phone call. And there’s a lot of research that shows multi-tasking impedes learning. In an in-person CLE, however, my common sense of courtesy prevents me from drafting emails or chatting on the phone. There’s a person up-front talking and I don’t want to be rude. I pay closer attention because my sense of social obligation compels me to.

But in-person CLEs have more to offer than this. In 2000, Harvard professor Robert Putman published a groundbreaking book called Bowling Alone, suggesting that (due to the internet, among other developments) we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures. And bowling alone, of course, can lead to depression.

Last September, the American Bar Association challenged the country’s law firms to do more to support attorney mental health. That’s because industry experts have been sounding the alarm over high rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide among lawyers. We work in an alienating profession where we take on other people’s problems and have limited control over outcomes. The Minnesota Supreme Court is aware of these issues. Last February, they hosted a Call to Action for lawyer well-being. And they published the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study that found lawyers, particularly younger lawyers in the first ten years of their practice, are grappling with serious barriers to well-being.

You know what helps? Social groups alleviate depression. One study, by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, found that building a strong connection to social groups helps depressed patients recover and also helps prevent relapse. As members of the bar, we lawyers have a built-in social group of our peers. And we get to connect with this social group at in-person CLEs. Eliminate the requirement and solo practitioners, as well as big-firm attorneys may simply find it easier to stay in their homes or offices, watching CLE on-line instead of connecting with their colleagues in-person. In an era when purport to care more about attorney wellness, it seems troubling that we would eliminate a requirement that actually helps attorneys find communities and connection.

But even beyond issues of attorney well-being, the in-person requirement fosters a more collegial bar. At every in-person CLE, I meet new attorneys. I make friends. I have interesting discussions. When I later find these same attorneys across the aisle as my adversaries, I already have a relationship with them. I know them as people, not just opponents.

It is also harder for newcomers to integrate without in-person CLE. South Dakota eliminated all continuing legal education requirements. I presented on implicit bias at their annual bar convention, and several attorneys mentioned to me that it was difficult for attorneys who did not attend the University of South Dakota to integrate into the legal profession because they simply didn’t meet each other anywhere except the annual bar convention. And the annual bar convention felt a bit like a law school reunion anyway. At the welcome dinner, attorneys sat at tables organized by their class-year of graduation from the University of South Dakota. I can only imagine that, if I had attended the University of Minnesota and was trying to meet other South Dakota lawyers, I would have a hard time finding them. In-person CLEs are the watering holes of our profession, allowing new attorneys to feel welcomed and find peers and mentors.

Finally, I have a deep, dark worry that the on-line requirement is simply one step in an evolution that will lead to eliminating the continuing education requirement all together. And this would be a disaster. I want my doctors to get continuing education. I want my accountant to learn about new tax laws. And I want my lawyer to know about legal developments—changes in the rules, new case law, and best practices. I don’t want to engage a professional who thinks they know all there is to know about their profession. This is a person who is not engaged and doesn’t want to improve their craft. I want to engage professionals who not only care about the substance of their work but also their peers. And in-person CLE encourages us to do just this.

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