Last year the Board of Bar Examiners approved approximately 13,000 Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programs.
But attorneys would like to see some courses added that reflect the evolution of the legal profession.
Credit-worthy programs directly focused on marketing, law firm management or software tools are largely absent, although BBE Chair James A. Morrison pointed to several offerings which touch on technology and business.
For example, there are programs that educate attorneys on electronic legal research, e-discovery methods and navigating changes to the state’s trust account rules.
The bar also offers a six-credit, day-long program called “Hanging Out a Shingle” which addresses some accounting practices, how to communicate with clients in a timely manner and how to avoid “electronic malpractice.”
And on Nov. 30, the bar launched a six-part, 60-minute live Webcast series that focuses on business skills lawyers need to be effective members of their firms.
But the initial session, titled a “Survival Guide for the Current Economy,” cost $75 for bar members and offered zero CLE credits. Wisconsin lawyers are required to complete 30 hours of CLE credits every two years.
“This is a major shortcoming of CLE programs offered to lawyers,” said legal consultant Larry Bodine.
The primary reason for the dearth of practice management courses, said Morrison, is the Supreme Court rule on CLE which mandates that programs improve the ability of a lawyer to practice law.
“Traditionally, we’ve not approved things like ‘Microsoft Word for Lawyers,’ because the thought was it didn’t fall within the Supreme Court rule that essentially says a program has to be legal in nature,” Morrison said.
That could change. The BBE is set to meet with the Supreme Court on Dec. 7 and ask whether the current rule could be more broadly interpreted.
While Morrison cautioned that an endorsement from the Court probably won’t get “Judo for Lawyers” or “How to Dress for Success” courses adopted, it could open the door for more business and marketing programs.
“We have oversight responsibility, but we want to interpret the rule as broadly as we can,” Morrison said.
But, he noted, “the devil will be in the details,” as to how lawyers will get CLE credit for courses on utilizing online social networking.
Small firms to benefit
Attorney Christopher L. Strohbehn, a member of the bar’s CLE Committee, said incorporating more business programs will especially benefit solo and small-firm practitioners.
Given that the recession has forced many firms to trim staff or consolidate resources, courses on time management, billing and ethics in a small office setting would be extremely practical, suggested Strohbehn.
As a past president of the Milwaukee Young Lawyers Association, Strohbehn said it’s important to provide the next generation of lawyers with the right skills to succeed, beyond black-letter courses.
“Things like Internet marketing and social networking have really taken the place of the yellow pages,” he said. “I think it’s relevant to discuss attorney obligations with those types of media format.”
Bodine agreed that attorneys need more than knowledge of statutes, court rulings and procedure to survive today.
And if the bar provided CLE-credit courses on how to effectively run a firm, it would be money well spent for attorneys.
Bodine recently gave a presentation to the State Bar of Arizona on marketing strategies during the recession. Attorneys who attended received full CLE credit.
“Finding and serving clients is equally as important to practicing law as knowing what the law is,” Bodine said. “The [Wisconsin] CLE agency has an attitude from 1950 when it comes to approving courses that will help lawyers stay in business.”
But even if the CLE guidelines are expanded, business and marketing programs will still have to have mass appeal to be successful.
“There’s always the question of [whether] attendance by small and mid-size firms [will] offset the number of people from larger [firms] who may not come to a seminar like that,” Strohbehn said.
Morrison said the BBE has reached out to lawyers in the state to get a sense of what program changes might be worthwhile.
“There are important things that might not be specifically legal education that do deal with the stresses and strain of practicing law,” he said.