CLE 2.0: Online Quality

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)


  1. Avatar Sam Glover says:

    Alternatively, how many lawyers want to actually improve their professional skills? They want quality and will pay for it.

    Having been to many expensive, live, and low-quality seminars, I definitely do not agree that quality has any inherent connection to live CLE (nor do I think that, in practice, CLE has much value). Mandatory CLE is an incentive to lower the bar and encourages lawyers to buy credits. Why not just get them online?

    • Imagine if CLE were not mandatory at all. What would happen? The lawyers who come to live CLEs and read newspapers (or who sign up for online CLEs and take a nap during them) would save some money. The lawyers who make an effort to to take relevant CLEs (or who are interested in learning new stuff) would continue to seek them out (and be willing to pay for them). So the low-quality and mediocre CLEs would disappear, while the good CLEs would remain. And the overall quality of lawyering would stay right where it is.

      • Avatar Roy G. says:

        I did not mean to imply that live CLE is inherently better than on-line. I agree that it is not. However many CLE providers. regulators and attendees (especially those boomer age and above ) think that it is.

        There are actually handful of states, including MA and MI, where CLE is not mandatory. I also know for a fact, that in both states, there are CLE providers that provide excellent programming and few attendees are there to buy credits.

  2. Eventually, on-line CLE providers will adopt rating systems, like nearly everything else on the web. I believe that most lawyers would rather pay $50 for a highly rated CLE than $10 for crap. This will both provide a financial model for providing good CLE and increase the pressure on presenters to do a good job. No one wants to have a reputation for providing 1-star CLEs.

    Live seminars will survive if providers and presenters make the experience worthwhile for attendees. Too often lawyers attend live CLEs thinking that it will be a good networking experience, only to walk away disappointed because they don’t know how to network on their own. It’s up to the presenters to coax the audience into interacting with each other. I think that speaker ratings should be used for advertising live CLE as well but that idea hasn’t gotten much traction yet.

  3. Avatar Jackson says:

    I have attended both live and online CLE and found the quality consistent. Ironically, online CLE seemed harder; a certain degree of interactivity one takes for granted in live settings isn’t always possible, provoking one to swiftly create new techniques with which to facilitate deep learning. I’ve also found, as has been demonstrated by some of the above comments, that boomers and above often rigorously question the quality of online CLE credits. Perhaps a paradigm shift in the nearby future entailing a greater reliance upon online ed and rating systems will change this unfortunate prejudice. I don’t have any answers as to how CLE providers can sell quality online, though I suspect the current suspicion about the quality of online CLE in general has as much to do with the mindset of potential attendees as it does with inherent challenges presented to providers who must somehow project the promise and reputation of quality within such unique, virtual constraints.

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