Legal Education’s Loss and the Problem with CLE

Late last week David Hass, Wisconsin’s Director of Judicial Education, died unexpectedly. For 16 years Dave coordinated an innovative variety of excellent programs that updated judges on important developments while deepening their understanding of core legal principles. Dave was a warm, gracious man who will be missed.

Dave’s passing is an opportunity to reflect briefly on the sharp contrast between continuing education for judges and lawyers. My modest observations are informed by nearly thirty years of teaching to both groups and by my current perspective as chair of the Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners, which regulates continuing lawyer education (CLE).

Invariably, Dave insisted on engaged learning in which judges actively participated in the classes. For many years it has been my privilege to co-chair, along with Judge John DiMotto, annual two-and-a-half day workshops on wide-ranging proof problems in civil and criminal trials. Our workshop faculty calls on the judges in attendance to address issues, explain approaches, and offer their answers. Often the room is evenly split among various solutions, the essence of discretionary decision-making and effective learning. The faculty consists mainly of judges who have been taught to teach in this way – to engage students. Discussions are usually lively, informative, and occasionally provocative, like any good classroom. And in language every law student knows, there are no “passes.”

The stimulation present in many judicial education classes is frequently (mostly?) absent in many CLE courses. Part of the problem is numbers. There are several hundred judges in Wisconsin in contrast with more than 20,000 licensed lawyers each of whom must accumulate 30 CLE credits each two years. Each credit represents an hour (50 minutes) of instruction. The economic cost is staggering when one considers the time (20,000-some lawyers x 30 hours) and the attendance fees.

The principle behind CLE is sound: lawyers should stay abreast of legal developments. It’s the execution that is often lacking. Lawyers are not required to take any particular type of course, except for the mandatory three credits of “ethics.” Most salient, nothing requires that attendees be engaged in any manner. There are no quizzes and no tests; peppering the room with questions is unusual and likely unavailing. Although CLE regulations demand a qualified instructor who offers “helpful” written materials, there is no requirement that anyone pay attention to anything that is said. Thus, an attendee can while away the time checking e-mails, reading depositions, or just cruising the Internet. Only the attendees’ sense of professionalism and the instructor’s ability to draw attention command attention. In sum, CLE is too often a “butt-in-the-seat” exercise that demands only physical presence, not intellectual engagement. (“Online” programs implicate all these problems and more.)

To be sure, there are many excellent CLE programs that engage attendees with excellent content at affordable cost. A healthy trend sees law firms, large and small, offering in-house programs that address matters of common interest. One suspects such audiences are attentive. For my part (a personal opinion), I’d just as soon require fewer credits presented in a more rigorous format that compels reflection and engaged learning. My guess is that Dave Hass would agree, while also gently pointing out the seemingly insuperable obstacles.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rick Sankovitz

    Great post, Dan, and a great tribute to a great director who will be deeply missed.

    Judgeships don’t come with as many perks as there are in a decent practice, but one distinctly superior perk we get (at least in Wisconsin) is superb continuing education, and mainly because of the discipline of expecting the learners to participate and contribute, and in doing so to provide fellow learners with some of the most valuable teaching. Beats lecture-watching by a mile.

    Dave, among others (and especially the deans of the Judicial College, Judge Lisa Stark currently, and her predecessors Judge Bob Mawdsley and Justice Janine Geske) have worked with determination to structure the teaching around participation and actually bring experts in adult education to Wisconsin to train the faculty in techniques and education philosophy that sustain this style of teaching.

    There are CLE providers who have succeeded at this — NITA, for example — but it is unfortunate that CLE audiences don’t demand this style of teaching more often.

  2. Brent DeBord

    Prof. Blinka:

    Your suggestion for requiring fewer CLE credits but with an increase in actual teaching, student engagement, and testing is spot-on.

    I’d also suggest allowing Wisconsin attorneys to certify as specialists by successfully completing a series of more disciplined CLEs with some sort of testing for certification.

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