How Wacky Are Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Rules?

Continuing Legal Education (CLE) for lawyers is mandatory in 45 states, with each possessing its own unique set of MCLE rules and regulations. CLE rules and regs govern attorney compliance and provider and course accreditation. Many of the rules are confusing, onerous and downright wacky.

During a recent presentation for the Association for Continuing Legal Education (ACLEA) my co-presenter and I highlighted some of the doozies in a game show format that even veteran CLE experts had trouble answering correctly. How daft are these rules? Let’s count (some of) the ways.

  1. Among the top professions that impose continuing education requirements on members who hold licenses to practice, legal is the only one without a national standard, governing body, or uniform rules for member compliance and course accreditation.
  2. States can’t even agree on what the “M” in MCLE stands for. Some call it Minimum Continuing Legal Education while others label it Mandatory Continuing Legal Education. Of course we all know that they also can’t agree on how many minutes constitute a CLE hour. Some say 60 minutes, and a minority, 50 minutes.
  3. Of the 45 States that have mandatory CLE requirements, starting with Minnesota in 1975 and more recently, New Jersey in 2010, no two have a similar set of rules or regulations. This, despite convened summits and recommendations on uniform rules over the years.
  4. Most states that mandate CLE don’t allow their attorneys to automatically earn CLE credit for attending a course accredited in another state (reciprocity). The attorney (or sponsor) must also apply for accreditation of the course in that state.
  5. Some states require that a provider submit an application for accreditation of a course at least 60 days in advance….with a full set of materials. Try getting even a simple outline from a presenter that far in advance.
  6. Applying for accreditation of a single live course in all mandatory states by sponsors who are not “Accredited Providers” costs a whopping $1,600.
  7. Some states don’t allow for “Accredited Provider” status meaning that providers must submit each course for accreditation. In Florida alone, that amounts to $150 for every course which must be submitted in advance. Tack on another $75 if submitting the application after the course.
  8. Some states don’t allow you to earn credit if you’re eating. Yes, you read correctly. So for that keynote address during lunch, the tables must be cleared first.
  9. Of the states that accredit in-house courses — courses held in law firms, for example — some are subject to a slew of restrictions including: activity must be open and advertised to outsiders, all or some of the faculty must be from outside the firm, a minimum number of attorneys must be in attendance, and the activity must not be for the sole or principal benefit for members of the firm. Wow, the activity must not benefit a lawyer who is a member of the firm?
  10. Presenters and panelists for a CLE program can earn up to 10 hours of presentation time per course, while in other states, it’s only a 1:1 ratio. What makes a presenter’s time more valuable in one state over another?

There’s more, much more, but you get the idea.

For a historical perspective of what was going though the minds of those that originated MCLE, here’s an excerpt from Robert H. Staton, The History of Mandatory Continuing Legal Education in Indiana, 40 Val. U. L. Rev. 345 (2006). Available here (PDF)

Fifty years ago, continuing legal education after law school was done on the job. You joined a law firm where you became an apprentice and learned at the elbow of an experienced partner. You did grunt work and hit the books often to avoid sharp, hazardous twists and turns that were not mentioned in law school. You also had the security of a member of the firm to give you a nodding head of approval or a frown with a shaking head to do it over. For those brave souls who were on their own without a law firm backup, there existed a practicing bar that generally gave a helping hand. Additionally, the sitting judges usually did not have heavy calendars, allowing them the indulgence of helping a young, struggling lawyer who lacked the necessary experience. For the most part, it can be said that there was a friendly and benevolent acceptance of new members of the bar by the older practicing bar. More often than not, when the books did not provide a clear practical answer, a new member of the bar received a helping hand offered by an older, more experienced member of the bar or by a sitting judge. These older attorneys were usually delighted to display their experience and knowledge of the law. But later, the landscape started to change. The need to obtain information became more immediate and urgent. Legal problems became more involved with each passing legislative session and the addition of new administrative bodies. The practice of law was changing.

The profession is changing more rapidly now, but the CLE rules haven’t. Some of the onerous, even punitive, and certainly wacky rules now seem to work against the general purpose of CLE – to promote more competent, ethical lawyers.

CLE rules are promulgated by the state supreme courts and administered by special CLE Commissions or Boards. There’s been remarkable change in the business of law and disruption in the profession over the past few years. Is Continuing Legal Education next?



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  • Bella

    All excellent points— and don’t forget the smorgasbord of rounding rules (up, down, 1/10. 1/4, etc.). Some allow apps online, while several require paper applications (including copies of materials). Spread across hundreds of sponsors, that’s a TON of paper and postage! Uniformity, please!!

  • shg

    Seems to me your beef isn’t with “whacky” rules, but with the fact that CLE is tied to the licensing jurisdiction, states, and each state maintains the rules applicable to the lawyers it licenses. What would be whacky is getting credit for a CLE in Kansas procedure if you’re license to practice in Maine. But the implicit issue with the fact that states license lawyers is another debate involving entirely different issues, which makes most of your points moot.

    If you want whacky, consider that some states give CLE credit for programs on lawyer marketing or using social media.

    • Ah, Scott, always good to see you on the channels. Most states only allow accreditation of marketing and social media programs if they address ethical concerns.

      • shg

        Not always the case, and when it is, I prefer my ethics to be taught by someone other than a salesman for Findlaw: “No, there’s nothing unethical about using our stock blog content published under your name written by slave labor in Bangalore with special emphasis on SEO.”

        • Agree that it’s not always the case which is why I said “most states”. If it were that’d be a rare case of uniformity.

          SEO has its place, but I really like a quote from a recent piece by Seth Godin:

          “I’m not writing to maximize my SEO or conversion or even my readership. I’m writing to do justice to the things I notice, to the ideas in my head and to the people who choose to read my work.”

          • shg

            You do realize that Seth hears voices in his head when he’s not on his meds, right? I don’t hold that against him, of course.