CLE’s steep learning curve

@LTNY online networking panel. This is not what I expected. Must either leave/kill self soon as possible.

Haven’t we all been there at one time or another? Stuck in a presentation that we devoutly wished we’d never signed up (or been obliged) to attend? Up till now, all we could do was suffer in silence and wait for a coffee break or the end of the session to voice our regret to the nearest listener. Then Twitter came along.

The quote above is a Twitter entry by Gabe Acevedo, an attendee at LegalTech New York who was sitting in — and livecasting his thoughts about — an online networking session on Tuesday. Suffice to say he wasn’t delighted with the presentation, but what matters for our purposes is that he transmitted his displeasure to more than 150 followers, many of whom re-broadcast these and other negative messages to many thousands more, most of whom weren’t at the conference but all of whom received a pretty negative assessment of the session and its sponsor. Never mind all those paper evaluation forms that conference organizers are always asking you to fill out. Thanks to Twitter, liveblogging, and wireless access, every CLE session in the world is now subject to instant, real-time, uncensored feedback — not just to the event organizers, but to everybody.

As I’ve said before, it’s not just the private practice of law that’s in upheaval, it’s all the industries and offerings connected to it, including  law school, legal publishing, and legal research. It’s now time to add CLE (and its more evolved descendant, Continuing Professional Development) to the list.  Here are three ways in which CLE is likely to be transformed.

Transparency. Conference organizers are starting to invite bloggers to attend their events, presumably in hopes of generating more coverage and publicity; I wonder if they’ve thought through all the ramifications. When  the mainstream legal media covers a CLE, the resulting accounts are either neutral or positive — when was the last time you saw a CLE session ripped by a legal newspaper or magazine? The media outlet and the CLE provider work in symbiosis — one gets content, the other gets publicity — and neither benefits from spoiling that relationship (cf: local cinemas and community newspapers). Bloggers and twitterers usually don’t have those kinds of interests to protect, and as we’ve seen, they feel free to broadcast what they feel in the moment  — lawyer citizen journalism, if you like.

This means that the reputational stakes are now much higher for CLE providers. Sometimes the feedback is very good. A happy attendee can generate positive buzz on an overwhelmingly disproportionate basis, one person improving 1,000 readers’  impressions with every post or tweet. But an unhappy delegate can do the same in the other direction — doing more damage, actually, because bad reviews travel faster and more widely (especially, as is often the case, when those bad reviews are kind of entertaining).

This will place huge pressure on CLE providers — but in the end, I think, in a good way. They’ll never lack for feedback, they’ll know exactly what did and didn’t work, they’ll be heavily motivated to increase the quality of their sessions, and they’ll be able to identify the key influencers in their marketplace. The outcome of this greater transparency should be more responsive CLE providers and better-quality CLE.

Competition. Online CLE has been a win-win for everyone, making continuing legal education accessible to lawyers in small or remote communities who normally can’t afford the time and expense of travelling to an urban center for an in-person c0nference. Plus, online CLEs are usually recorded and made available for later downloading at a lawyer’s convenience. All of this is excellent. But here’s a question: what’s the difference between an online CLE and a podcast?

There’s a growing amount of excellent legal knowledge contained in podcasts downloadable from law firms, law schools, associations and other sources.  If you’re  a lawyer on a budget who needs to keep up with the law, podcasts can be tempting. Moreover, podcast authority Bob Ambrogi confirms that a number of podcasts (including his own) have been approved as satisfying CLE requirements as far back as 2005. This is not to say that your average podcast can compete with your average online CLE for quality of content and depth of commentary. But the gap between them is poised to narrow over the next several years — and even if it doesn’t, a number of lawyer consumers will be content for lesser quality at a much lower price.

But you don’t need to look to podcasts to see burgeoning competition for CLE providers. As Toby Brown of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog pointed out last fall, in a post ominously titled “The Googlization of CLE,” law firms are producing tons of in-house CLE every year for free.  The market is being flooded with CLE, and an eventual outcome of that is the commoditization of many offerings:

[I]n the not-too-distant future, [lawyers] will be getting CLE for free online. And why wouldn’t they? In addition to the obvious cost savings … online CLE gives lawyers the opportunity to take the subject matter they want, when they want it.  … CLE content will likely follow the Google model. Give it away and make money on ads and partnerships. In the end, it’s really a question of who will figure this out first. Large law firms are already there, with them being the content provider and the advertiser.

Unconferencing. The first item above described a threat to CLE’s marketing, the second to its business model. But there’s an even more fundamental challenge rising to meet CLE right now: the nature of a CLE event itself. For as long as practicing lawyers have been coming together to learn from their peers, a roomful of attentive listeners has faced a lecturer and taken notes as the speaker transmitted knowledge through words and visuals. This format has survived the transfer to the Internet — online CLEs still feature one-to-many discourses occasionally interspersed with questions from the audience.  Aside from the absence of exams, it’s largely indistinguishable from law school.

But we’re seeing a trend away from this style of lawyer learning. The standard long-table-podium-and-microphone is looking more like a 20th-century relic when compared to the increasingly popular semi-circle of speakers sitting in comfortable armchairs, taking questions from a moderator or attendees, and conversing with portable mikes. It’s “CLE Meets ‘The View,'” and audiences are finding it engaging and satisfying. But even that’s still a variation on the theme of “I tell you what you need to know.” The more radical direction in which CLE is headed is towards the “unconference” — what Wikipedia calls “a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose.”

Unconferences proceed from the premise that there’s as much or more knowledge and wisdom in the crowd of attendees as there is at the podium, and that the key to a really effective learning experience is to let audience members turn around and talk to each other. In the modern spirit of collaboration, it’s many-to-many learning, often organized around focused small-group encounters like workshops from which attendees report back to the larger group. Everyone contributes something and everyone comes away with something. The draw is not the keynote speaker but the other delegates; the organizer’s key value-add is not a lecturer but a facilitator. The classic legal unconference is Matt Homann’s LexThink, next scheduled for St. Louis at the end of March and focusing on innovation in law practice. But I can see this model catching on for more traditional CLE subjects as well.

A lot has been written about how law school has to change, and how our whole approach to training new lawyers needs to be overhauled. But formal legal education in law school is only three years of a lawyer’s career; continuing legal education usually lasts at least ten times longer and arguably is far more important in ensuring lawyers’ competence to practise law.  If law school is in for a serious makeover, what does that say about the upheaval awaiting CLE?


  1. Susan Cartier Liebel

    Another very astute observation. Am I becoming a groupie :-)

  2. Alli Gerkman

    Jordan… I think about these things all the time, but I mainly see opportunity for us CLE professional-types. Perhaps I’m just an optimist?

    Positive comments about your conference are great (I love them), but negative comments are even better. Like you said, it’s feedback that can make the opportunity better, but it’s also an opportunity to engage with people. Conference organizers should have an online presence right there alongside the attendees. Real time. Good CLE providers have always known that CLE is a relationship business. We just have more tools to build those relationships now.

    As far as competition goes (free or otherwise) I’m all for anything that raises the overall bar of CLE. CLE providers who are immobilized by changes might not make it, but look out for CLE providers who can couple a wealth of experience with innovation.

    The live conference is not dead, and as it becomes more interactive (using the unconference style is one way) and as our ability to connect before, during, and after the event continues to improve, I believe it could become stronger than ever.

    P.S. When I started blogging about conferences about a year ago, it was almost unthinkable that legal conferences would come this far this fast (I’m referring to LTNY). Needless to say, I am very excited about the developments. Thanks to all those at LTNY for pushing us into new territory so swiftly.

  3. Stephanie Kimbro

    Next week the NC Bar Association is having a CLE with what I believe will be its first unconference during the Law Practice Management Annual Meeting. This is a big step in the right direction in my opinion, but it’s going to take time to educate other attorneys as to the collaborative value of this type of CLE and maybe even longer to get them to participate themselves and make the experience truly interactive.

  4. Doug Cornelius

    Jordan –

    Presenters and conference organizers are going to have to develop thicker skins. Most presenters are used to the few people who come up after a presentation and say great things and ask for more.

    Now the feedback is much more transparent and live. I think one of the #LTNY panels would have been very different if they had bothered monitoring Twitter.

    On the plus side, sitting here in Boston, I was able to get snippets from the presentation. One of my questions on Twitter was asked by someone in the audience who relayed it back to me through Twitter.

    One of the problems with CLE is that they are given by lawyers. Generally lawyers who have no presentation skills, poorly prepared for session and don’t try to engage with the audience. “I’ll take questions anytime” is not engaging the audience.

    On the other side, I think you are looking far ahead. LTNY was a tech conference and there were only a handful of blog posts and a few dozen Twitterers transmitting. If a tech-focused conference has those few, a standard legal conference or CLE is likely to have fewer (none).

  5. Jim Schroeder

    Well said. You have really put your finger on the center of the subject! Things will change, time will tell if your predictions are correct as to how but I would bet you are right on all counts.

    I have wanted to write the same as that twit so many times…

    I believe the difference between a good presenter and a bad presenter is the bad presenter is interested in how much they know, the good presenter is more concerned about how much you will know at the end of the session.

    The truth is most of us have been blessed to be able to make enough money, even in a bad economy to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Money is not the issue, I am more concerned with the amount of time I have and how I invest it.

    Time is a finite and personal resource I try to guard. As a lawyer and a minister I do my level best not to waste others’ time and expect the same, especially when I have paid for the privilege hearing your presentation…

    The changes you forecast will reshuffle the cards and hopefully make opportunities for presenters who are knowledgeable, care about their listeners and want to add value to their lives and practices.

  6. Jason Goodwin

    Unsurprisingly, I agree with you that CLE’s need to change, and that it’s part of broader shift within the legal industry. I’d just like to highlight your last point. The importance of CLEs or Professional Education or whatever-you-want-to-call-it cannot be overstated.

    Rapid technological change portends a drastically altered socioeconomic landscape as we move forward. With the practice of law being largely reactive, one cannot possibly pretend to provide legal advice without the ability to learn and relearn how business and personal interaction takes place.

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