The MCLE question no one wants to ask

Here’s a conversation I sometimes like to imagine, between an elected official in the government and a representative of a state bar or law society.

“So, I understand that law is a self-governing profession, and that you’re the governors.”

“That’s right.”

“I assume you know that self-regulation is a privilege, and that the government allows you to oversee various matters that would otherwise fall within our jurisdiction.”

“Of course. Lawyers’ independence from government is critical for us, so we’re zealous about regulating ourselves, in the public interest, to maintain it.”

“How does that work in practical terms, though? For instance, how do you make sure lawyers are competent enough to serve their clients?”

“We’ve instituted mandatory continuing legal education, or MCLE. Lawyers must complete a certain amount of post-call education every year.”

“Do you mandate specific courses lawyers must take or skills they must learn?”

“No, we generally allow lawyers to choose courses based on their own interests.”

“I see. Do you test them on what they’ve learned in these courses?”

“Well, no. But they always receive binders of materials that they can bring back to their offices.”

“Uh-huh. How do you know they’ve even attended these courses?”

“Well, they report it in their annual filings. But they wouldn’t lie about that. They would risk serious discipline if they were found out.”

“Okay, let me ask you this: Let’s assume every lawyer in your jurisdiction completes the full amount of CLE you prescribe every year. Does it work?”

“Does what work?”

“Does mandatory CLE work? Does it ensure that your lawyers are competent? Are there studies establishing that MCLE verifiably improves the quality of legal service by lawyers?”

“Uh, none that I’m aware of.”

“No? Do you mean in this jurisdiction only, or in any jurisdiction?”

“Er, any jurisdiction, really.”

“Alright, let’s back up. How about ordinary CLE, the non-mandatory kind: are there any studies proving that taking CLE is directly and causally related to maintaining or improving lawyers’ competence?”

“[long pause]….”

You see my point. There might be jurisdictions where the MCLE requirements are stronger and more specific than what I’ve hypothetically described above, but if so, there aren’t many. The foregoing conversation is quite plausible — frighteningly so, if you’re a regulator.

Mandatory CLE is the rule in 44 of 50 US states and in eight Canadian provinces, although curricular and reporting requirements vary across jurisdictions. In every state and province, however, the original impetus for mandating CLE was the same: we need to ensure lawyers are up to date on the law in their areas of practice, thereby maintaining lawyers’ competence and fulfilling our self-regulatory requirements. At least, that’s what I assume: I’ve not been able to find a really fine statement of MCLE’s purposes on the website of any legal regulator that imposes it.

Generally, the reasoning in support of MCLE seems to be implicit: CLE makes you a more knowledgeable lawyer, which makes you a better lawyer, and we want to mandate better lawyers. QED. It’s a great idea, obviously. But is it true? Does requiring lawyers to take a minimum amount of CLE every year make them better at what they do? Intuitively, one supposes that it does, but intuition is not evidence in any court. Can it be proved? Has it been proven?

I’ve spoken with some of the smartest minds in lawyer professional development and asked them if they’ve ever seen a study showing conclusively that MCLE is causally connected (or even strongly correlated) with lawyer competence. None of them has. Nobody, as far as I can tell, has published a study proving that even ordinary, voluntary CLE produces better lawyers. The benefits of CLE can be reasonably assumed, but apparently that’s all they are: an assumption. And mandatory CLE is an assumption squared.

If you want an excellent example of how messed up the legal profession has become over MCLE, read this report of the Supreme Court of New Jersey that led to the state becoming the 44th to approve MCLE in 2007 (HT to Michael Williams). Here’s how the report dispensed with the threshold questions of MCLE’s necessity and effectiveness: “[W]hat reasons, other than the absence of empirical data, mitigate against making CLE mandatory? We have found few, if any.” I’d love to see the reaction of a New Jersey Supreme Court judge to a factum that included this line of reasoning in its arguments: “We have no empirical data to support our position. But there is very little, if any, evidence against it, so we ask this court to rule in our favour.”

I can think of three significant reasons why no one has successfully demonstrated a causal link between MCLE and lawyer competence.

1. It’s very difficult to measure competence. And even more difficult, for that reason, to measure increases or decreases therein. I’ve written before that competence testing in the law tends to be forensic: we find out which lawyers are incompetent only after they wreck a client’s case or their own careers. But defining “competence” for a lawyer is extremely tricky: what standards do you use? Should those standards vary according to practice area, year of call, degree of oversight or autonomy, geographic location, sophistication of clients? How do you test for competence? Who pays for the process? None of these questions has an easy answer. But they are all good questions, and the public whom lawyers serve has a right to know that they’re at least being asked, if not answered. As far as I can tell, the legal profession is not even asking.

2. It’s in nobody’s interest to question MCLE. Continuing legal education is big business, and some of the most heavily invested players in the market are regulatory bodies. The people who decide that lawyers must take CLE are often the very same people who sell CLE to lawyers, which by any standard is a glaring conflict of interest. Many voluntary bar associations are kept afloat in part by CLE revenue, and they view MCLE as manna from heaven. And frankly, lawyers themselves, even though they might not love MCLE, have learned to live with it by gaming the system: sitting in the back of the room checking emails during a lecture, or logging in to an online CLE session and doing billable work with the sound off. It’s a reasonably cozy arrangement.

3. There isn’t any causal link between MCLE and lawyer competence. We might as well get that out there.

None of this may be new, although I’ve seen very few people talk about it openly. But the problem remains: what could a regulator say if a legislator started asking the questions at the start of this post? Should CLE be mandatory? If so, why? How should it be structured, and how should its effectiveness be measured? Here are my suggestions for dealing with this issue:

1. Attend to the absolute basics. A regulator should ask itself:  “What must we ensure that lawyers know, and can do, in order to maintain baseline professional competence that satisfies the standards of self-governance?” Regulators can answer that question, I think, by looking at where lawyers make the most mistakes, and start there. Every regulator and/or professional insurer keeps close track of the nature and cause of complaints and malpractice claims against lawyers. It is well-known that “knowledge of the law,” the subject of 90% of all CLE programming, is nowhere near the top of the list. Generally speaking, here’s where lawyers are getting in trouble:

  •  Failing to establish clear expectations at the start of the client relationship.
  •  Failing to keep clients informed on a timely basis.
  •  Failing to respond to client inquiries in a timely manner.
  •  Failing to identify and avoid conflicts of interest.
  •  Failing to maintain lawyer-client confidentiality.
  •  Failing to ensure security of client information.

Your mileage may vary according to your jurisdiction, but these are the basics that recur state to state, province to province, year after year. Yet I’m not aware of a single jurisdiction that specifically mandates education in these areas, and I’m aware of some that won’t even accredit business- or professionalism-related courses that would cover these topics. Lawyers need to know how to operate a law practice in a viable, ethical and professional manner. If they did, they would commit fewer basic errors and incur fewer penalties. So figure out how many hours would be required to deliver this information, add it up, and there’s your minimum MCLE requirement.

2. Make the knowledge tangible. How do you test this knowledge? Provide lawyers with checklists, templates, protocols and step-by-step processes they can follow to check for conflicts, issue comprehensive retainers, and keep clients continuously informed. Then have them draw up a sample retainer, list the steps involved in checking for conflicts, and describe what they do to keep in touch with clients. Throw in a few other ethics or professional responsibility questions, if you like — every lawyer should be able to answer one or two of those. These are the fundamentals of lawyer professionalism: lawyers can learn them, and their learning can be tested.

3. Monitor the signals of competence. How do you know this is working? Track the number of complaints reduced and malpractice claims reduced year over year. That might not be direct proof of causation, but if the trend lines are strong enough, it would be pretty persuasive correlation. And a really good study would back up the quantitative results with qualitative data derived from focus groups, lawyer interviews, insurance experiences, and so on. Ask yourself: what would the government look at in order to measure improved levels of lawyer competence? They’d probably look here.

There’s a lot more I could talk about in this area — the wisdom and feasibility of mandating substantive-law CLE, the relative merits of online delivery, the best way to teach skills (as opposed to knowledge), the role of private-sector CLE, and perhaps most importantly, rethinking the entire traditional methodology of post-call lawyer learning. But this is where regulators can start, at least, to redefine and reconfigure the profession’s approach to mandatory CLE.

The question nobody in the profession wants to ask about MCLE is, “Does it work?”, because the implications of a negative answer are deeply problematic. I understand that. But we still need to ask the question, and there are ways to answer it that would satisfy any outside inquiry. So let’s ask it already.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.             


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