CLE Gone Wrong

To the extent that feral lawyers have any pretense at organization, bar associations are meant to serve that function.  But as this post at Above the Law shows, even the New York State Bar Association listserv has turned into another forum for nastiness and self-loathing in the current economic atmosphere, where a relatively new, still unemployed, Fordham law grad reached out in an effort to find a job.  His attempt was met with ridicule.

This reflects a problem.  Not just a problem with young unemployed lawyers, but with older lawyers who have their own problems with business, enough so that they can’t find the grace to be kind if not helpful.  It bears the stink of desperation that’s spreading through the profession.

Our bar associations and law schools can smell the aroma as well, and are trying to do something about it, or perhaps capitalize on it as the case may be, by running Continuing Legal Educations programs on the critical legal topic of, ta da, social media.  Stop laughing.  I’m serious.

The idea of continuing legal education was born of the notion that too many lawyers would allow their knowledge and skills to languish after passing the bar, leaving them substantively lacking while imbued with the monopolistic right to hold themselves out as qualified to represent others in the law.  CLE was made mandatory, since lawyers couldn’t be trusted to keep abreast of developments in the law on their own.  Schools and associations, not to mention a cottage industry of private fee-based providers, were authorized to provide CLE.  All to make lawyers more competent.  Really?

There has been a rash of CLEs on the topic of blogging and social media.  What the heck does this have to do with better representing clients?  While it’s fine for lawyers, traditionally about 12 steps behind the rest of society in its acceptance and adoption of technology, to want to learn what all the hoopla is about, but in satisfaction of their mandated CLE requirements?  Spare me.  Not only is this a flagrant bastardization of the concept of CLE, but it further promotes the facile belief that law is all about snagging business rather than serving clients. 

“But Greenfield (you moron, optional), without business we starve, and that doesn’t help anyone (especially us).”
Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean that it becomes fair game for continuing legal education.  If you want to attend conferences on how not to starve, as opposed to how to get a life, by all means do so.  But don’t expect CLE credit for it.  These conferences aren’t for the benefit of clients, but for the benefit of lawyers.  No one said you couldn’t take whatever courses you wanted, but that you can’t substitute continuing legal education for continuing marketing education.  No, they are not equivalents.

But the problem gets worse.  A while back, I was astounded by an NYSBA blogging CLE where the speakers never blogged.  It was followed up by another seminar with someone who “blogged”, assuming that one considers blatant self-promotion, as in “if you’re arrested, I will win your case,” blogging.  Mind you, the blogger was quite impressed with himself and his blogging skills.

Since then, the drizzle has become a deluge.  There appears to be no end to the number of programs, and the ready availability of people holding themselves out as experts to speak at these programs.  Just yesterday, a new one appeared in my emailbox, with speakers characterized as “social media practitioner” (huh?) and “twitter expert.”  Where does one take the test to become a twitter expert?

Aside: At a cocktail party yesterday evening, I met a person who is writing novel about twitter. They didn’t grasp the irony at all.

I can’t blame the people who have gotten themselves gigs as speakers at these CLEs.  After all, they get CLE credit for doing it, and are promoting something they are engage in and enjoy.  Some have a great deal of knowledge on the subject, though others don’t appear to have any reason for being on the panel whatsoever.  And some have a big horse in the race, their financial interests being acutely connected to persuading lawyers to hop on board their wagon.  Everyone appears to be a great lover of technology and supporter of social media as the newest, greatest thing ever.  This is a “do it or die” conference, and the fact that a few stand to cash in on the “do it” part doesn’t seem to matter.

One more thing happened yesterday (yes, it was a busy day) that drove the problem home.  I, along with a few other malcontents, was asked to be on a social media panel at a conference on the upper left coast.  They wouldn’t pay for travel.  They wouldn’t pay for room or board.  But I could attend the balance of the conference without paying the fee.  This was sheer madness. It’s one thing to ask me to sacrifice my time, but to expect me to pay for the privilege is insane.  And attending a conference that falls ten steps below sticking a needle in my eye is not much of an incentive.

And then it dawned on me.  The reason the only sounds heard at social media CLEs are the dulcet tones of sycophants is that the others would never pay to play.  There’s nothing in it to justify traveling around as apostles of social media.  Only those who see profit in the activity would be bothered, and willing to suffer the cost.

In the process, bar associations and law schools are putting their imprimatur on lawyer marketing when their CLE mandate is to improve the skills and qualifications of lawyers so that they can better serve their clients.  If the good lawyers on the NYSBA listserv wanted to do the unemployed Fordham law grad a solid, they could saved the snark and just replied with one word.  Plastics.

22 comments on “CLE Gone Wrong

  1. Jeff Gamso

    Of course, the CLE sham(e) isn’t just in pushing marketing. Five or six years ago I got a brochure from one of the obviously-for-profit CLE providers (as opposed to at least some Bar Associations which are nominally non-profit and put on CLEs as a professional obligation to improve the quality of lawyering) advertising the opportunity to get CLE credit for attending a two day seminar in Florida on “Winemaking for Lawyers.”

    Alas, I couldn’t make it.

    As an aside (OK, this has all been an aside, but I’m about to digress from the digression), the real point of CLE requirements (especially the ethics component) has always been marketing of the profession – see, we mandate regular training and education and especially mandate that lawyers study ethics because it will ensure that you, the ignorant public, will receive superb counsel – and that lawyers will be the most ethical folks around.

    And what’s the percentage of people who are reading the latest best seller AND listening to the iPod while sitting in the room during the CLE? As if the requirements really meant anything except income for the providers.

    (And yes, there are some terrific CLE programs out there and lots of lawyers who work on their presentations and who actually do have some expertise in what they present and plenty of people who are seriously learning. But that would be true regardless of whether CLE was required.)

  2. SHG

    You do have a tendency to digress, but even your somewhat cynical explanation behind CLEs, that they serve a PR function with the public to make lawyers more warm, fuzzy and competent, is sadly accurate.  That said, the only person for whom winemaking for lawyers seems appropriate is Brian Tannebaum, and then only to save his clients from his wine blathering.

  3. Nicole Black


    You raise some really good points re: legal conferences. There will always be tension in re: to the purported purpose of a conference–to educate attorneys–and the true goal–to make money for the conference provider.

    And, of course, there are other arguably conflicting interests, as you note in your post.

    Even so, conferences can be useful, both for gaining new knowledge and networking with other like minded people. They can also be a lot of fun, especially after hours, depending on the crowd.

    As you aptly note, the failure of conference providers to pay for speaker’s expenses is a problem. I recently turned down a number of speaking opportunities for that very reason.

    A similar issue that is a relatively new phenomenon is conference organizers’ refusal to pay costs for “social media promoters” to attend a conference.

    I was recently invited to attend a conference “for free” with the proviso that I promote it on Twitter and my blogs. I was to be responsible for my traveling and hotel costs. Of course, I declined.

    I discussed this issue in my Daily Record column a few weeks ago.

    In any event, very interesting post, as always.

    By the way, I’ll be in NYC twice over the next few weeks–from 9/20-22 and from 10/7-9. Lunch perhaps, Mr. Greenfield? 😉

  4. SHG

    I’ll be in Des Moines on the October dates (Social Media for Curmudgeons [Midwest Division] Conference), but in town on 9/21-22.  And if you unblock me on twitter, I’ll even pay.

  5. Ken

    I’ve always thought that CLE was mostly about the power of the various constituencies that could pester their State Bar cronies to mandate that lawyers take various classes. Some of these constituencies are the for-profit providers. Some are political. Take, for instance, the fact that in California I am mandated to take CLE in avoiding being a drunk and avoiding being a sexist. I submit that does not represent need, or a legitimate policing role of the State Bar, but State Bar people caving to their lobbyists.

  6. SHG

    Take, for instance, the fact that in California I am mandated to take CLE in avoiding being a drunk and avoiding being a sexist.

    Ah, you are referring, of course, to California’s  Geeklawyer Mandate, created upon the threat of Geeklawyer’s alleged migration to the colonies. Some rules are driven by fear.  Some by profit.  And one by Geeklawyer.  At one time, there were two, during Mistress Ruthie’s tenure, but that threat has since subsided.

  7. Nicole Black

    Consider yourself unblocked and followed;) I blocked you to keep out ambient noise, not your noise… If you follow me back that would be fab, but I understand if you don’t. I’m a prolific tweeter and can clog the tweet stream;)

  8. David Sugerman

    Good post.

    I entered practice in Oregon a year or two before our bar adopted mandatory CLE. I had a front row seat on heated discussions over the mandatory nature. The motivations were good. But what started with good intentions has turned very bad for many of the reasons you and Jeff Gamso note.

    A few additional thoughts: I don’t think it’s really cottage industry anymore, as widespread mandatory CLE means lots of cash on the table.

    It’s a wonder that good programs exist, but they do. Bryan Garner on legal writing, the annual Nat Consumer Law Ctr’s class action intensive, some of the AAJ programs to name a few. But the mandatory and regulatory pieces have rotted it to the point of stench.

    I’m actually less than totally jaundiced on the soc media stuff. I see it as something of an outgrowth of the dire need to train lawyers on tech that should be part of legit CLE. But of course many who profess on social media are goofballs or worse. (If you doubt this, maybe you should buy my as-of-yet unwritten Idiot’s Guide to Law Twitter for $79.99. For you special deal of 49.99 if you act today and order 10.)

  9. Craig Ball

    I agree with you respecting CLE on CLE as a marketing tool or social phenomena; but I see value in CLE sessions directed at litigation and liability issues uniquely tied to social media. More, social media is rapidly becoming a rich source of electronic evidence.

    Accordingly, programs that address practical ways to search, preserve, collect, authenticate and present social media content in e-discovery and trial has a genuine and material value in CLE. Let’s not treat every instance of a CLE topic about social media as audience-drawing trash.

  10. SHG

    Legal issues related to social media are an entirely different matter, and certainly an appropriate subject for CLE.  Anything that makes us better lawyers rather than better marketers.

  11. SHG

    There are many things that would be better. In fact, pretty much anything would be better. But be wary of lawyers with a little knowledge, like a quickie science lesson. A little knowledge is dangerous.

  12. John Neff

    The science of alcohol breath testing may be OK but the technology in my opinion is dubious. That is just one example of dubious field measurements where the science is fine but there are engineering compromises that need critical review.

  13. A Voice of Sanity

    My concern is that too many don’t know how much they don’t know. In one case, much of what one expert said was correct but on one point she appears to have made a wild guess and the defense failed to ask the right questions or to follow up by inquiring of other experts, resulting in an innocent man getting a death sentence.

  14. Pingback: OT: If You Want To Know, Ask | Simple Justice

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