After more than a decade of interviewing lawyers and frequently asking what they like best about the legal profession, I can say that one of the most common responses is some variation of, “I like to learn.” (Happily, I must add that, “I like to help people” is a strong contender for the top spot, too.)
It’s true enough that many of us went to law school because we liked school.
Once we’re released into real-world legal practice, the learning doesn’t stop — at least, theoretically, not for lawyers in 46 jurisdictions in the U.S. who are required to attend mandatory continuing legal education in some form as a licensure requirement. As you likely know, in Wisconsin, per SCR 31, it’s 30 hours every two years, including three ethics hours, reported by Dec. 31 every other year.
For most lawyers, this professional learning bears a substantial price tag. But not for Milwaukee lawyer Nicholas C. Zales, who has found ways to minimize or eliminate the CLE expense from his overhead, which is the topic of this column.
Zales, a sole practitioner with Zales Law Office, says, “My goal on CLE is to get it all over and done with at once. And so I like all-day programs. Free is becoming harder to find.”
Throughout the past decade, Zales said about 50 percent of his CLE credits have been free and another 40 percent came at less than $10 per credit. He does admit to having paid full price for a few State Bar programs he really wanted.
“Most of the free all-day programs I used to attend were put on by the Marquette University Law School, the State Bar of Wisconsin and private law firms,” Zales says.
“Marquette and the State Bar seem to be moving from free programs to having an almost-token cost of $40 for a program,” Zales says.
He does participate in the occasional one-credit programs, such as a recent Web-based seminar by Clifton-Gunderson. The only drawback is that it takes awhile to fill the 30-credit requirement that way, he notes.
Following up on his suggestions, I spoke to Christine Wilczynski-Vogel at Marquette Law, who confirms that the school does host live programs, for free or low-cost, for reasons other than to generate revenue — primarily to serve the legal community and the community as a whole. Sometimes they are approved for CLE credit, when the speakers have been willing to draft outlines and speak for the prescribed time periods. She notes that prospective attendees, whose attendance hinges on whether the program receives CLE, should feel free to give her a call, because they don’t make that a part of their promotions of upcoming events.
As for Clifton-Gunderson, the program Zales was referring to was, “Advising Victims of Investment Scams.” You might want to check its Web site, cliftoncpa.com, for future, free CLE Web-based seminars.
I checked with the University of Wisconsin Law School to see if it offers free or low-cost CLE. It does sponsor CLE, but not in the price range Zales is describing.
The Wisconsin Court System. I did find an alternative for those in the Dane County area. The state law library in Madison offers programs, usually free, monthly, one-hour sessions on legal research topics. Sometimes the programs are longer and in those instances there’s a nominal fee. A complete schedule is available at this link. The classes are limited in size, so if you’re interested, you should register ASAP.
The programs are live, and most are held at the state law library, but occasionally they are offered at the Milwaukee Legal Resource Center in the courthouse. Connie Von Der Heide, the Director of Reference and Outreach Services at the state law library, says they’ve considered putting them on the Web, but don’t have the resources to do so thus far. Stay tuned.
Legal Service Groups. Typically, they ask that in return for free CLE, you’ll perform pro bono service for them.
Attorney Beth A. Richlen, of Wisconsin Judicare Inc. in Wausau, says it offers free CLE anywhere from twice a year to quarterly, in high-demand areas such as consumer protection and family law. Sometimes they are full-day, live programs, and sometimes they are half-day programs. The locations vary, but are always within the upper 33 counties of the state that Judicare serves. In return, participants are asked to take a “low bono” case, meaning they will be compensated, but at a rate of $45/hour or a modest flat-fee, depending upon the complexity of the matter. It’s a chance to learn, keep your law license in good standing, do good and pay your electric bill all at the same time.
Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc., based in Milwaukee, offers similar CLE opportunities for attorneys in the lower half of the state — free, all-day, live training, in exchange for pro bono service. According to Patricia Z. Risser, who coordinates the Volunteer Lawyers Project, participants can opt for either a representation, or perhaps donating some time at one of Legal Action’s special projects.
Bar Associations. Occasionally bar associations offer free CLE as a member benefit. For example, last summer, leaders of the Marathon County and St. Croix Valley Bar associations told me that they offer free CLE from time to time at their meetings. In Marathon County, they shoot for CLE at six of the 10 meetings per year. Considering that annual dues are $25, a little over $4 per CLE credit is a pretty remarkable bargain.
I should also mention the State Bar’s new “Ultimate Pass,” a one-year subscription that allows you unlimited access to attend any live, video, Webcast, Webcast replay, telephone or CLE OnDemand seminar sponsored by bar. At $595 per year, if you can cram in all 30 credits in one year, that’s a little less than $20 per credit. Not a bad deal, and you do get a huge variety of programs from which to choose, although it does exclude the Solo & Small Firms Conference. It also gives you admission to the annual convention for an additional $75.
Finally, the American Bar Association offers about two dozen free, on-demand CLE programs, both as membership benefits and “open access,” to anyone. Go to abanet.org/cle/clenow for a listing of courses.
An important caveat: I wasn’t able to find any of the open-access programs listed as approved in the Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners’ Web site database, although I did see a few of the members-only courses, which were approved.
John E. Kosobucki, the BBE’s executive director, told me that, for example, one of the ABA’s open-access courses got the thumbs-down because it was an ethics course; SCR 31.05 provides that no ethics credits are available for repeated, on-demand courses. As for the ABA on-demand courses that weren’t in the BBE database, his best guess was that those courses weren’t submitted for consideration for CLE credit.
Bottom line: It’s always a wise idea to check with the CLE provider and/or the BBE about a program’s eligibility for CLE credit. Lawyer marketing programs, for example, aren’t always favored by the BBE, says Kos
obucki, because they might make you a better rainmaker, but they won’t make you a better lawyer — which is the purpose behind the mandatory CLE rule, after all.