Continuing Legal Education Should Have an Easy Mode

The biggest reason new law school graduates hesitate to hang their own shingle is that they know what they don’t know. The crippling intimidation of starting your own practice derives largely from the axiom that if you are going to practice law, you should probably know something about the law. It’s no secret that law schools don’t adequately train students to practice law on graduation day plus one. So every year, fall rolls around and you’ve got a large population of new, unemployed and under-trained lawyers who want to practice law, but won’t because they feel like they don’t know how.

Unfortunately, since the legal profession adapts to new trends about as awkwardly as your mom adapts to Facebook, new lawyers have woefully few resources for helping them learn how to be a new lawyer.

CLE: Complicated Legal Education

When I eventually got the message from the job market that said “look … it’s not you, it’s me,” I decided to start my own practice. So I made a crude checklist. The first thing on my checklist—I kid you not—was “learn how to practice law” (note: I’m a smart-ass even on personal checklists). So I asked several senior attorneys how I should go about learning the substantive aspects of my chosen field of law and one answer that I always got was: go to a lot of continuing legal education programs. And I listened to these senior attorneys because, hey, they’re old and know what they are talking about. As it turns out, it wasn’t great advice.

Listen, I’m a reasonably smart person. I can correctly answer like two-thirds of the questions on the first round of “JEOPARDY!” No biggie. But I have never felt like a bigger idiot than when I went to some estate planning CLEs. And don’t get me wrong, CLEs are really useful tools for a good chunk of practicing attorneys. But when you are a new attorney who knows next to nothing about the field in which you are practicing, they are, at their worst, cold-blooded and unhinged confidence-shattering machines. CLE presenters operate on the assumption that the audience is composed largely of seasoned attorneys that know their practice areas inside and out, but just need to brush up on some small aspects of, say, distressed commercial assets. That is simply not the case. It may be that a lot of experienced attorneys go to CLEs, but I think it would be difficult to argue that they are the attorneys most in need of legal training.

The “target market” is different

The demographic of who is currently in need of practical legal education is very different now from what it was several years ago. Of course there have always been new and undereducated attorneys, but several phenomena have shifted the target market for legal training. First, law schools are pumping out more graduates now than ever before. Second, law schools don’t teach students how to practice law. Third, there are many fewer jobs.

It used to be that new lawyers cut their teeth at a firm right out of law school, and that’s where they would learn how to practice. But those opportunities, in large part, aren’t available to new graduates. So if new attorneys are going to grow professionally, they will have to learn the substantive aspects of the law somewhere else. Obviously, there are several ways that new attorneys can learn about their fields of practice. “Learn by doing” has been my mantra thus far, and volunteering your services can also be a very effective way to learn how to practice. But given that there is an established program that offers legal training courses, you would think that there would be more new attorneys walking out of CLEs as better practitioners.

Dumb it down

I have been to several CLEs where I wanted to ask the TV the same thing that Homer Simpson once asked: “Um, can you repeat the part of the stuff where you said all about the…things?” There is an assumption made by most attorneys who present at CLEs that their audience is at essentially the same competence level. That assumption is what causes a good amount of the confusion on the faces of new attorneys like me.

Put bluntly, there are wasted opportunities at CLEs and other seminars across the country. New and inexperienced attorneys really want to learn about the fields they are entering, but have difficulty because the training industry assumes that its audience is an already experienced one. Until the established legal training complex adapts to its customers, however, new lawyers will continue to struggle to find ways to learn about their fields of practice.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wellohorld/3050608789/)

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  • “Since the legal profession adapts to new trends about as awkwardly as your mom adapts to Facebook”. Not a truer word has been said about the legal profession.

  • Adam

    I found myself in pretty much the same boat as yourself, and hope to open up shop in the next month or so.

    Fortunately, I think I was given better advice than you were. Rather than going to CLE’s (though I have gone to a few for bar requirements), I was told to 1) volunteer, 2) watch the types of cases I want to handle (not that there are a lot of opportunities to observe estate planning), and 3) talk to attorneys in the area (especially old ones – they apparently love giving advice). So far, so good – we’ll just have to see if it stays that way after the doors open.

  • Hey Tyler, most states have bridge-the-gap CLE programs that are designed specifically for newly admitted attorneys. In fact, many mandate that you complete these courses during your first two years.

  • Tyler White

    Tim,

    I could be completely wrong here, but according to the ABA only 12 states have mandatory bridge-the-gap programs. And aren’t a lot of those programs centered around professionalism requirements? It looks like NY and a few others have some decent “101” type courses, but I don’t exactly see a critical mass of these types of programs.

    Obviously, you know a lot more about CLEs than I do, but this was just my perspective as the consumer.

  • Check to see if your state has a mentoring program or gives credit for mentoring. GA and OH have mandatory programs. SC’s is voluntary, I think. (Check me on that one.) IN allows credit for participating in a mentoring program, but doesn’t run one formally. TN is still trying (http://bit.ly/c3eV8v).

    If they don’t? Get a mentor anyway! Mentoring should be driven by the beginning lawyer!

    • Adam

      I don’t know if I’d call Georgia’s ‘mandatory’. You can satisfy the requirements by having a mentor (who ultimately signs a form saying they’ve done certain stuff with you), or by attending 2 days of ‘beginning lawyer’ CLEs – a well-meaning, but less than useful program. It’s all set up in such a way that most new lawyers in firms have an in-house mentor, and most unemployed or solo lawyers (who need the mentoring the most) do the CLE.

  • Frank

    Great points made. Some states may think they are doing their best to make sure newly admitted attorneys, but often enough your just getting read “here’s what you should” rather than “here’s how to do it”.

    And CLE events can only teach you so much, especially because if your newly admitted your on a different level than the attorney with 10+ years of experience in the area. At Lawline we’ve tried to open up our course catalog of online CLE’s by providing a free learning site called learn.lawline.com. We take out the “golden nuggets” of each course, and provide them for free, targeting those who may not want or need to watch the entire course.

    I did a search for “Law Firm” on the site and came away with this: http://learn.lawline.com/?s=law+firm&search_video=true

    It doesn’t give you all the “answers” but its a good start, and following up with questions to attorneys who give lectures (whether live or online) is one way to fill the gaps that were pointed out. And it can lead to personal discussion like, “I know that you’ve gotten to this point in your career but HOW did you get to this point?”

    Hope this can help someone out there!

  • It’s a classic catch-22 that no one wants to take a chance on the guy with no experience (and in this job market they don’t have to), and you can’t get experience unless someone takes a chance on you. It sounds like the CLEs in your area are unfairly limited, and it may seem overwhelming at first, but if you continue to attend them your knowledge level will increase, and so should your confidence. From another angle, it may be a good old school idea for networking and marketing yourself – allowing you to meet some seasoned attorneys and show them your ambition toward success in your field. It looks like the other comments have some good advice for additional resources as well. Best of luck to all those currently seeking.

  • There seems to be such an ongoing discussion among CLE providers and state bars regarding the accreditation of content regarding how to run a law practice, including marketing, social media, and going solo. It sounds like maybe soon at least some of the states will recognize these courses for CLE credit. I am interested to hear various attorneys opinions on this issue.
    In the meantime, Sterling does offer a slew of fundamental and basic courses geared towards attorneys and non-attorneys that may help you “bridge the gap” even for those states without such a requirement. I would be happy to help you and your readers find the right course.