Recently, I attended the mid-year meeting of the Association for Continuing Legal Education. ACLEA is the primary organization for CLE professionals from bar associations, law schools, law firms and for-profit entities, as well as other CLE professionals like me.  I’ve been attending ACLEA meetings for about a decade. I always leave with some interesting new thoughts about the future of CLE.

CLE 1.0

For a long time, the CLE model involved actual speakers before a physical audience. When I first joined the group, everyone was talking about how the introduction of online CLE programming would completely destroy the traditional model.  This was CLE 1.0. We all know that there are still plenty of live CLE lectures. There’s no doubt, however, that online CLE programming has reduced the demand.

CLE 2.0

We are now in the era of CLE 2.0. There are many competitive options on the web.  Plus, the price keeps going down as vendors offer bundles of credits for a few hundred dollars. A savvy consumer can find and purchase credits for $10 each, or even less. As the profit margins continue to decrease, it looks like it may be a race to the bottom. Even non-profits hope to make at least some money.

Can Live Survive?

Plenty of older lawyers still prefer being in the same room with a qualified expert. Some younger lawyers, too, will prefer that format. But it won’t be long until the boomers retire and most CLE is provided online. If your bar association is now offering 40 live programs per year, that number will decrease every year going forward.

Credits v. Quality

Where does this trend leave the online CLE industry? To arrive at an answer, one must address the industry’s $64,000 question – what will the lawyers want?

How many lawyers want to simply buy credits in order to maintain their licenses? They don’t care about the content, as long as it’s cheap and easy to obtain. Alternatively, how many lawyers want to actually improve their professional skills? They want quality and will pay for it.

CLE online providers must decide which category of consumer they want to attract. If they go after those attorneys who simply buy credits, they must do so with the knowledge that their margins will continue to shrink. If they go after those who want quality education, they will be able to charge a premium.  Conventional business wisdom says to choose the latter.

How Do You Sell Quality Online?

Now it gets much tougher. How do you sell quality on the web, when CLE providers are pretty much limited to selling titles and a brief description from a website or email?  Can you sell quality in a title or a description? I don’t think so. On the basis of speaker reputation? Probably not. As much as I’d like to think that lawyers attend my CLEs because of my sterling reputation, in reality I doubt it.

How will we even define what constitutes a high-quality online CLE? A dynamic speaker who keeps you at your computer for an entire hour? A timely subject based on new legislation or some evolving trend? A nice-looking studio? A competent moderator? The ability to interact and ask questions?

Like any good lawyer, I am raising more questions in this post than I am answering. What it all boils down to is that the providers who figure out how to differentiate their brand and sell quality content online will win in the CLE 2.0 era.

(image: College Lecture Hall from Shutterstock)