Give Me Some Credit – The Continuing Education System

This may be shorter than you are accustomed to receiving on Friday mornings, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Who is making the sacrifice is something we can hold for later. Can we talk about mandatory continuing education? Let’s do – mainly because I am about to undergo one such struggle session.

“Back in my day . . . ” is a way I never thought I would start a sentence because I was always one of the young whippersnappers who never had “a day” that was far enough back to beat young people over the head with. But, well, here we are. Anyway, when I first became a licensed attorney in my state, there was no such thing as mandatory continuing education.

Oh, there was continuing ed, alright. I even went to quite a few examples. For younger folks, here is how it used to work. People put on seminars. If they were good seminars, lawyers used to pay money (and take time out of the office) to attend them. What did we get? We got good, practical knowledge (and usually a nice reference book to take home). As you can guess, a seminar or other educational program had to be pretty good to get folks to attend.

It was within the first few years after I passed my bar exam that my state instituted mandatory continuing ed. The way it works here is that we have a three-year cycle to ring up 36 hours of credit. This works out to 12 hours per year for the cycle, but in any given year you can get by with 6 hours so long as you get to 36 at the finish line.

So, what is different now? There are more seminars. Lots and lots and lots more seminars. Multiple times a week there are come-ons in my email box for seminars. And once late October hits, watch out, because the volume of seminar promos simply explodes. As you might imagine, quality can vary pretty widely. Unless we are talking about “video replays” which are uniformly horrid. I will confess to some smugness because my prediction has proved correct from when I immediately renamed the rule “The Full Employment For Seminar Givers” rule.

Which seminar you choose to attend is different too. Where before it had to be about something useful, now the goal is to log hours. Almost immediately there was a new category of attendee – the old guy (it was always an old guy) in the back row with a file or a deposition transcript or even a newspaper spread open on the table in front of him. This person was not there to learn anything, and could not have cared less about the output from the earnest young presenter as he (or she) droned on about some topic that was clearly not as important to him as the hours to be awarded.

And an attendee’s level of choosiness diminishes as the deadline approaches. It is December and a guy still needs hours? Sign up! Things reach a point where it no longer matters if the subject is tax law, immigration, securities regulation, divorce or litigation techniques. It becomes all about cost and schedule, and a guy who does little but insurance litigation or wills and trusts comes out of a session on marital property division with just about zero improvement in the ability to serve clients.

Covid caused a change which allowed all 36 hours to be online instead of a maximum of 12 in a cycle. I have not decided if this is a good change or a bad change, but it is certainly convenient. A person could (in theory) write a blog post while someone on a computer screen goes on and on about some completely irrelevant topic. But, of course, such things would never happen in real life.

Yes, I understand that all clients want their attorneys to be up on the latest developments in the law. But the result is as it always was – there are lawyers who want to keep current and those who do not see the need to do so outside of their day-to-day practice. The only difference is that now both groups are sitting in on the seminars instead of just the first group.

My background in economics makes this quite understandable – everyone has boxes to check. Good systems make those boxes relevant to improved outcomes that the system was put into place to encourage. But sometimes the system becomes the end instead of the means. Sometimes a system meant to encourage improved lawyers turns into a vending machine that churns out credit-hours. For a fee, of course.

So blogging time is up because it is time to turn my attention back to the Continuing Ed seminar about to get going. What is it about? It’s about an hour. Beyond that, I hope it is something of use beyond simply a credit hour. Although the cynic in me says that the odds are against it.

18 thoughts on “Give Me Some Credit – The Continuing Education System

  1. “Mandated” compliance to nebulously defined “continuing education” sounds like a win for the “seminar industrial complex”. I started my career working my craft for small studios, then having my own studio. The brain-drain of the mid-west meant I eventually took a corporate position running an internal department. It was an eye-opener! I couldn’t believe how we were bombarded by seminars covering some of the most inane things, and corporate HR departments were in on the craziness (don’t get me started on the HR industrial complex!). I couldn’t believe they had high cost seminars to teach inept and unsocial CEOs how to speak in public. Never raise your arms, never fold your arms, even if it’s natural. We used to laugh every time we used to see a hapless CEO trying to speak by gesturing with his or her elbows stuck to their sides (like robots)! I couldn’t believe I was tagged to go to seminars covering intellectual property law and usage rights for media, where I knew more than the instructors and had to correct them! J.P. I feel your pain.

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    • The Seminar-Industrial Complex — Love It!!! Perhaps part of my problem is my contrarian’s nature. I appreciate going to a good seminar where it is a) relevant to my field and b) put on by folks who know more than I do about it. But I just don’t like being told that I HAVE to go to X hours per period, when its main use seems to be to weed out the few lawyers every year who can’t be bothered to follow the rules.

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  2. Wow, struck a nerve with me here. Professional Engineers Ontario just started their Continuing Education System about 5 years ago. So far it’s only sort of mandatory, if you complete the requirements your name goes on a list of engineers who are in compliance. Note that it’s easier to track the ones who HAVE complied, I’d expect that the take rate is pretty low since I believe in the intelligence of my fellow engineers.

    I’m in the “I’m busy, leave me alone to do my job” part of my career, so I guess I’d be that guy working or reading the paper in a pointless seminar. I too recall the old days of attending good seminars. When I learned Excel many years ago we took two days, went to a class, had an instructor and a workbook, had a pretty good time and learned a lot.

    I must admit I don’t feel too sorry for you JP, because at least you have some choice in your provider of seminars. You can use some networking to hopefully find seminars that aren’t total stinkers. But I work for a 15,000 person global company, and our seminars are delivered internally.
    We’ve been on a steady roll of reorganizations and new systems for about 10 years now, and in the last year the convulsions of a merger so there is no end to the training we’ve had. It’s usually delivered by a Finnish person reading a Power Point presentation, which is not an effective way for my brain to learn.
    Here’s a random example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPt-9MRQcw0

    In person and on line give the same result, but I now prefer the prerecorded ones because I can let them run in the background. Then I can work and take the test at the end. I passed competition law and data privacy in September!

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    • Sounds familiar also with me, all those internal pre-recorded seminars from new leaders after the latest reorg. During mergers and integrations those were kind of a regular thing. That and export control.
      I love those seminars that you have to attend on computer security, not giving away your password, don’t reply to phishing emails, and all that. They preach that you have to use passwords 20-30 characters long, in nonsensical phrases.

      Just think, JP, while you are in these seminars, you can break out the old exercise bike with all those nice new bearings you put in a year or so ago!

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      • Haha – a good point, I should be getting some exercise time in during those presentations.

        Some of the topics that get approved are kind of amazing – how I can get legal education credit for things like networking help is a head scratcher to me.

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    • Oh yes, the situations where someone else chooses the seminars may be the worst. And I agree that there are few things worse than someone reading a powerpoint presentation. Except when you pay the money and take the time and you are sent away with some printed copies of powerpoint slides that are completely useless for any kind of reference material.

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  3. “What is it about? It’s about an hour.” Thanks for my morning laugh!

    I feel your pain too JP, and am happy I no longer have to deal with all that stuff. The first 20 years of my career we just had to maintain 20 credits per year, which could be easily done by reading drug journals, which most pharmacists do anyway, because you have to do stay current.

    Then the “Learning Portfolio” years arrived which required documenting (ie actually writing down on numerous standardized forms) your educational goals for the year, and how you intended to meet them, and then they added other sections like areas you intended to research based on practical questions you might have encountered in day to day clinical practice, and all this was beside the seminars. (It was kind of like documenting doing your job whilst doing it). It wasn’t enough anymore to just receive a certificate for something you had attended or a course you had taken online, now you needed flow charts. Every 5 years you had to hand in your Learning Portfolio, and for the lucky chosen they got to drive to Toronto and attend a simulated practice session, although now I understand that they come to your workplace and observe you working. (Can you imagine anyone ever failing that portion?) I never had to do that, but did get a summons to appear at work for an “observation” session, but I wrote and told them I had retired.

    To compound this, I also had a US licence also, which required a different set of C.Ed. requirements – eventually nine of their 30hrs/2yrs had to be completed in “live” seminars, including two in pain management, and since I don’t live in the US, and did not want to spend the money, I eventually gave it up.

    Concurrent to this, when I worked in hospital, there were also extensive Quality Assurance programs to be maintained, involving Quality Indicators, the format of which they would revise every few years and you’d have to start all over with a new program.

    No, I don’t miss it at all. And it was all so pointless and non-productive, as the “bad-apple” practitioners, and everyone always knew who they were, were never held to account anyway, unless they got caught up in a med error or a government audit and then that would be a “disciplinary committee” matter. The whole thing was kind of insulting anyway, when you’ve practiced for forty years.

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    • I have fortunately never had to deal with the dual-jurisdiction issue. A former law partner was licensed in two states, and there was an odd interaction where credits here would not transfer there, but credits there would transfer here – so he made an annual trip to the other state to sit through the courses, and would then turn in the paperwork here and get double credit.

      As you say, there have always been a bottom 10% in every field and everyone in the field has an idea who they are. I don’t think mandatory education has changed that.

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  4. Hmm – that’s interesting JP and I wonder how they do it here in Michigan now? I’ve been a legal secretary since 1980 and I do remember the younger attorneys being out of the office a half-day or even a whole day at a CLE seminar. Their materials were filed in the library. Then later, after we replaced typewriters with computers, memos were circulated about materials and floppy disks or CDs gleaned from said seminars and offered for others’ perusal as there often boilerplate forms. My boss hasn’t attended a seminar since I’ve worked for him (21 years). He does subscribe to a ton of BNA periodicals on labor law or construction law (I know as I used to file them into the hardcover books). I wonder if reading counts for CLE hours? He has been in practice since December 1972, so maybe CLE is waived after “X” number of years. P.S. – “Give me some credit” in your title is clever!

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    • I did a quick search and it looks like CLE (continuing legal education) is not mandatory in Michigan. Wow, it is kind of amazing that Michigan has not followed the pack here. But then again, Michigan sticks with no-fault auto insurance too, so it is not a stranger to going its own way in legal areas.

      Your boss does what everyone always did – you have to stay up to date in what you do from day to day.

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      • That is interesting JP. CLE might have been required at some time here (’80s and ’90s) or maybe the Firm just required its younger attorneys to attend those seminars back then. I knew my boss had not attended any in the 21 years we’ve worked together – even though I’ve worked off site for a decade, I know his calendar entries. After responding to your post, I was thinking perhaps he had achieved some type of emeritus status and was exempt – I would think emeritus status would be 50 years.

        You are right about the no-fault auto insurance law which was just changed in 2020 I believe. We pay the highest vehicle insurance rates in the nation. I decided to just keep my unlimited liability coverage which runs me about $200.00 more per year. It is very comprehensive coverage and I kept it because we have so many issues of road rage, people speeding and driving the wrong way. Not one week goes by that an accident resulting in death does not occur for these three reasons. It seems to me the innocent driver is killed more than the at-fault driver. Plus, I live alone, no family at all, so if something catastrophic would require long-term care or assistance, etc., I’d have to rely on an assisted living facility until I was fully recovered. People clamored for the law to be changed for years.

        Yes, Robb had many types of advance sheets publications coming in. We did not use a library service but tried to keep the filing up together. He has always had a complete law library at the office, even though he is a solo practitioner, but the last few years, he has gone to BNA online but still buys employment law updates annually from the State Bar Association CLE.

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  5. Late to comment, but it seems I’ve dodged somewhat of a bullet. With my Professional Engineer license, it was about fifteen years ago the continuing education credits came about, so I had five years of glorious, prior non-concern. However, these credits are on the honor system – just be prepared for an audit should it come about. That’s how the State of Missouri is working it and no doubt the requirements vary wildly by state and/or province.

    In addition, a new employer mandated system requires 52 hours of professional development annually for anyone in a supervisory position. So I view all these hours as being interchangeable. Also, as one who supervises a bunch of supervisors, we started a monthly professional development hour…where I have twice this year given a one hour lecture. On Microsoft Teams. That’s a trip.

    Being on both ends of the stick, it’s hard to say which is the less desirable. And I cannot say I would not be the guy in the back with the newspaper. It’s amazing how much one can get done during a seminar.

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    • I guess I am even later in replying. It has been interesting to read about the requirements for continuing ed in different fields. It is good when something you are already doing qualifies for the requirements. Right out of law school there was a monthly luncheon that was sparsely attended but very informative, where two professors from the local law school discussed recent cases – one prof specialized in cases of procedure and the other was big on evidence law. Both areas were highly relevant to my work as a trial lawyer and they were great. When the mandatory CLE rules were passed, this little club suddenly became hot, and they instituted a membership rule that nobody with under 10 years of practice experience could be admitted – they had to come up with some way to limit the size of the thing to the banquet room of the facility where we met. That was a great group until the two professors eventually retired, and those that followed were much less practical or focused. I eventually let my membership go after we got too many presentations on a favorite hobby horse of one of the professors (judicial elections – which had no practical value to anyone in the room beyond the CLE credit).

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  6. I work for a health regulator and we have a continuing education program for our registrants. As you say is the case for attorneys, the education content isn’t required to be in their particular area of practice right now, but the trend in regulation of health professions is to correct this. Our regulatory body is working toward making sure the continuing education will be of use to the clinician, but will also help protect the patients using their services.

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  7. I’m a bit late here, but the timing of this post is amusing. My wife is an attorney, and two weeks ago she spent a good amount of time watching Continuing Ed seminars. Since we’re both working from home these days, I got to listen in occasionally – I empathize with all of you who have to abide by this system.

    My wife specializes in government law, but the seminars that I recall her listening to were on elder care and estate planning. Very relevant, of course. Well, they were at convenient times, were cheap to register for, and she needed the credits.

    I understand fully why professions such at lawyers, engineers, doctors, etc. have accreditation. However, a good thing can be taken to extremes. Continuing education seems like a solid premise for keeping practitioners up-to-date, but in reality everyone knows it’s become little more than a waste of time. Sadly, we live in an era where common sense doesn’t prevail.

    Many professions and occupations are now following this model of accreditation (that frequently offers little more than the chance to pay annual dues in order to get initials to put after your name)… and never-ending seminars. I’m fortunate because I managed to get established in my profession without joining such groups. But for younger people just getting started now, memberships in those organizations is often listed as a job requirement. I’d looked into joining a few of those organizations, but between the dues and annual requirements to attend their seminars, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Grr.

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    • Yes, I think you have this thing pretty well figured out. I think that if improved practitioner quality was the real goal, random pop quizzes would be the way to go, geared towards each individual’s primary practice area. But if someone ever tries to put something like that into place, I want a front row seat and some popcorn. The current system gives the appearance of promoting that goal but I don’t think it really accomplishes much.

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