Introduction: The Fourth Year
A lawyer who has been practicing thirty or so years has completed four years of law school. Three of those years were consecutive before beginning practice. The fourth year was stretched out, 12-16 hours of CLE per year, over that 30-year period. I am at that point and realized that – thirty years later – although I can pretty much describe what each year of law school provided, the same cannot be said for my extended fourth year. I decided to examine whether, if I had a chance to re-do that fourth year, would I do anything differently. (Advance disclosure: 9% of this piece involves some marketing, and it is all in the last paragraph.)
My Fourth Year: Typical Enough for Discussion
I began my fourth year pretty much the same as everyone else did – my state bar’s “Bridge the Gap” program. This program, supposedly, would enable the recent law school graduate – simply by sitting in a hotel ballroom for three days – to convert all that law school knowledge and all that bar exam knowledge into tools for practice. I am certain I picked up something there beyond the two years of CLE I received, but, I am fairly certain that I never said to any partner I worked with back then “that’s not what they taught us in Bridge the Gap.”
The next part of my fourth year involved day-long or two-day long seminars, mostly put on by the “official” CLE provider, in my area of practice. Though some of these were wonderful, and some were terrible, the pattern was simple. Over an eight-hour period, you’d get about 3 ½ hours of subject matter about which you cared; 3 ½ of other subject matter, and one hour of someone either reading Bar rules, or telling you that lawyers should be nicer to each other. More than half the speakers at these programs would read or track their written materials. You’d get your 8 hours; you’d get an ethics/professionalism hour; and you’d walk away with a nugget or two, but, if you chose to read articles for an hour in the office, you’d get just as much. The “area of expertise” phase of the fourth year ended, for me, when I came to the realization that many panelists were either opposing or co-counsel, telling me about a brief I either wrote, or read, and the learning had basically disappeared.
Next, I decided to take some electives. For a few years, my thought was, as the cost/benefit thing would not work in my own practice area, I could at least pick up some basic knowledge outside of my field. This resulted in my bookshelf picking up clutter on things like family law and DUI. Kept my interest longer than the in-field seminars did but did not result in any profitable knowledge.
By this point in the timeline, two things had happened to make getting the hours easier. First, I had generated enough expertise and enough of a good reputation that I was included on at least one CLE panel a year. That inclusion provided both attendance credit and speaker credit. Second, I started coaching mock trial at a high school, which gave three hours of credit (including, if I recall correctly, a professionalism credit) in exchange for the hundred or so hours I put in. Though I have since “dropped” mock trial, the speaker hours and seminar attendance have been doing the job. The seminar attendance strategy is still rife with challenge. My current set piece is an ethics/professionalism piece, which can be put into any program, so I find myself sometimes in places where the knowledge imparted is not necessarily the most useful.
The last type of CLE that made up my fourth year was “forced” CLE. At least part of my fourth year involved time learning on a weekend the next big thing that someone with extreme power in a firm thought it was important for everyone to know. This category also includes the “suggestion” that you hear your boss speak at a seminar.
(One type of CLE which I never took and will not discuss here, but is worth mentioning, is “destination” CLE – where you go to the mountains, the ski resort, the islands, etc. and get a couple of hours a day on a four day CLE junket. That’s on a wholly different continuum.)
Ranking My Experiences
When I look at this “year” of law school and examine which parts stand out from a cost/time/usefulness perspective, the rankings are almost self-evident.
- Mock trial coaching. You want to know evidence, and how to argue objections, and how to write a cross or direct? Spend 12 weeks teaching high school students how to do these things and hone those skills. Nothing else on this list is even close.
- Those portions of any seminar combining three things (a) my lack of knowledge of the subject; (b) the immediacy of my need for the new knowledge; and (c) a knowledgeable speaker who was also a good presenter.
- Speaking creates a deep knowledge of a subject; updates are constant; and you get your thoughts vetted by a roomful of lawyers. There’s a secondary business generation component as well.
- The “electives,” so long as some more-than-minimum standard of speaker knowledge and quality was met.
- Bridge the Gap.
- Those portions of longer seminars that I had to sit through in order to get the content I really wanted to get.
- Instances where speakers told me what I already knew.
- “Forced” CLE.
Reexamining Choices: What if I Could Go Back to Law School and Choose Different Classes
Though I cannot go back in time, I could certainly offer guidance to newer lawyers, or lawyers who do not get their hours by speaking.
First, avoid – unless “forced” – long CLE experiences where the subject you want is outnumbered by subjects you do not want. That will of course be different at different points in a career, but in terms of benefit, it’s sort of like buying a new phone to get a new USB cord.
Second, and this goes along with the first, make sure that any CLE you choose meets your level of knowledge. If you’re new to a subject, then the existence of words like “introduction to,” “the basics of,” and “what every lawyer should know about …” are fine. But if you know the field, that’s wasted time.
Third, speakers matter. Some CLE speakers are knowledgeable and good presenters. However, most panels include three other types of speakers: speakers trolling for business; speakers on the panel because they are friends with the panel’s organizer; and, speakers who were the only ones available on that date with arguable expertise. Vet your speakers before paying money to hear them. Every other purchase decision you make in life probably involves prior knowledge and research; this one should too.
Fourth, variety is the spice of life. If you are not filling up hours in large blocks (see “First”) then you can take an hour or two every year to learn something new.
Fifth, you can learn by teaching, and perhaps see a boost in revenues by doing so. The process of imparting knowledge allows you to hone into the nuances of subjects, and, as noted above, it is a chance to get your ideas vetted by other lawyers during Q & A. Although there used to be some concern that you were “giving away” expertise by sharing it, right now every brief you are writing can be downloaded and used for source material. There are no secrets. There’s also the added benefit of getting your name out as an expert.
And Now, A Word from Our Sponsor
I did warn you that there would be a marketing element to this. If you don’t want it, stop now.
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