Continuing legal education, or as it is fondly called, CLE, began being a staple of bar membership in most states by the 1980s. The theory is that the law is always changing and new developments in case law and practice resources are essential for lawyers to know about, so in order to keep practicing in good standing, lawyers should be required to take a set number of training hours to keep up with current techniques and information. The practice is also designed to emphasize the law’s position as a self-regulating profession with exemplary dedication to excellence.
AND the new system allows the bar associations to require the purchase of a product the associations themselves develop, provide, and most important of all, charge for.
Most lawyers, it is fair to say, loathe mandatory CLE requirements. They resent the time and expense, and generally feel that having to take the courses is an insult.
Yesterday a Virginia lawyer named Paul Sherman—he might even have attended some of my courses!–laid out on Twitter his brief that CLE course are a “farce that do nothing to protect the public and impose big social costs.: Right wing blogger and law prof Glenn Reynolds endorsed the screed, calling CLE a scam. I teach about 45 CLE seminars a year on legal ethics, and I’ve spoken on the subject to the CLE providers association, so this obviously piqued my interest.
Here is Sherman’s argument (and by the way, Twitter is a ridiculous platform for extended commentary):
Since I’ve just finished my last Continuing Legal Education class of the year, allow me to say that these requirements are a farce that do nothing to protect the public and impose big social costs. For those of you who aren’t lawyers (who know this already), allow me to explain.
To continue practicing law in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I am required each year to take 12 hours of continuing legal education (4 of which must be live) by Oct. 31. Collectively, Virginia lawyers lose more than 290,000 work hours to CLE every year. Almost every lawyer I know satisfies these requirements in the same way: by buying whatever CLE courses are cheapest, regardless of subject. This is not at all surprising, because competent lawyers already stay on top of developments in their practice areas.E.g., I exclusively practice constitutional law, but this year I took CLE courses in international taxation, asset protection planning, independent contractor compliance, etc. None of these have anything to do with my practice, and the VA Bar does not care!
Consider also the direct and indirect monetary costs. Let’s say CLE packages cost $100. According to the National Consumer Law Center, in 2015-2016, the average attorney in Virginia charged $358/hr. That means the cost of these requirements is almost $4,400 per attorney. The total cost for all Virginia lawyers is about $106 million. Yet, of that, only $2.4 million ends up in the pockets of CLE providers. The rest is just value that has been destroyed. Even if we assume (with extreme generosity) that lawyers would voluntarily pay for 6 hours of relevant CLE each year, you’re still losing $50 million in value per year (which is almost exactly Virginia spends on indigent defense annually). In short, we would all be better off if Virginia ended this farce, abolished mandatory CLE, and instead required every Virginia lawyer to send an extra $100 to the Bar and/or to set $100 on fire.