Jennifer Flynn, the new executive director of the Legal Education Society of Alberta (LESA), has made Edmonton’s Top 40 Under 40 list for 2013. The least surprising thing about this is that Jennifer would land on a list like this. Anyone who has ever worked with her knows that she is a smart, talented, and indefatigable leader, educator, and volunteer. If you’re working on a project, it’s bound to be better if she’s on your team. I’m lucky enough to know this first-hand.

But there is, in my view, something surprising about this. She made this list for her work in continuing legal education.

“WHY SHE’S TOP 40: She dedicates her work and volunteer time to ensuring that Alberta articling students and lawyers receive the support they require for their continuing education.”

Her community–not even the legal community, but the broader community of Edmonton–values this work. I don’t like to say it, but it’s hard to imagine this happening here in the United States, where continuing legal education is often considered a hurdle and a nuisance, rather than a service. When I linked to her page, I expected her to be on the list for any number of other community activities she may be involved in. I could not imagine a Top 40 Under 40 List that honors a commitment to the professional development of lawyers (even if you and I think it is deserving). But there it was–a printed validation of the purpose and impact of continuing education for lawyers.

In thinking about why the culture around continuing legal education might be so different in Edmonton, it’s first important to note that Alberta has a unique system, which I mentioned in my last post. Alberta does not require a mandatory minimum of credits. Instead, it requires lawyers to develop a continuing professional development plan that includes learning activities to fulfill the plan, where learning activities are defined as:

a. relevant to the professional needs of a lawyer;
b. pertinent to long-term career interests as a lawyer;
c. in the interests of the employer of a lawyer or
d. related to the professional ethics and responsibilities of lawyers.

Lawyers act as architects of lifelong professional development that serves the public interest. And LESA supports the process.

It’s also important to note that LESA has had a run of strong, respected, and education-focused leadership. Jennifer, of course, and before her there was Paul Wood, QC, and Hugh Robertson, QC, both of whom are considered among the best in continuing legal education. It is not a leap to suggest that their leadership has played a role in the public’s perception of the role of continuing legal education.

Alberta has a system that honors the public interest and LESA and its leaders have supported that system with a commitment to the true purpose of continued education… and the broader community values it. That’s really something. Maybe we can learn from it.

Congratulations, Jennifer.

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I’m hearing rumblings that the Colorado Supreme Court Board of Continuing Legal and Judicial Education is reviewing the rules and may make some changes. I don’t know if they’re looking at big changes or small changes. I don’t know if they already have favored changes. But if I was on that board, I would take a closer look at these three CLE environments, all of which are, in my view, preferable to our current system:

1. Put more burden on the provider to account for learning outcomes
CLE rules vary state to state, but in Colorado there are relatively few burdens placed on the provider. This means that providers nationwide (some good, some not so good) flood the market with programs for Colorado lawyers. Like the providers themselves, some of these programs are good. Some are not so good. But it is virtually impossible to tell the difference because they all look exactly the same. There is a program agenda with catchy titles. And there is a lecture-based approach, where another lawyer teaches you from the podium. There is almost never a curriculum with courses that build on each other. So you go to the seminar and you take some notes. Maybe you learned something, maybe you don’t. But you get your credits.

A better system would require providers to identify learning outcomes and to share them with lawyers. This allows the responsible lawyer to make more informed decisions about his or her professional development. It also allows the lawyer to evaluate the class (through the regulatory body) based on whether it actually taught what it promised to teach.

2. Put more burden on the lawyer to account for learning outcomes
In 2010, the Colorado Lawyer asked, “Why did you become a lawyer?” One responded, “I wanted to be required to take 45 units of general CLE and 7 units of ethics CLE every three years.” Many lawyers no longer view CLE as an opportunity for professional development–if they ever did. This is why they swap CLE on Craigslist, no matter the subject matter (I have actually seen this). This is why they scramble to get 2.3 credits of anything as they near their CLE deadlines. CLE is like the bar exam to most practicing lawyers–it is a hurdle that has little to nothing to do with their practices.

But CLE wasn’t created to be an arbitrary hurdle. And, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t created to be a profit center for bar associations or for-profit startups. Here’s the preamble to the Colorado rules:

“As society becomes more complex, the delivery of legal services likewise becomes more complex. The public rightly expects that practicing attorneys, in their practice of law, and judges, in the performance of their duties, will continue their legal and judicial education throughout the period of their service to society. It is the purpose of these rules to make mandatory a minimum amount of continuing legal education for practicing attorneys and judges in order to foster and promote competence and professionalism in the practice of law and the administration of justice.”

Turns out CLE serves a higher purpose. But it’s easy to lose sight of that because, for lawyers, it has become a credits game. It doesn’t have to be that way. What if we got rid of credits altogether and asked lawyers to develop individual education and professional development plans? In a given timeframe, they would reflect on their practices, identify skills and competencies they need, and map out the classes (or other projects–these might include research, articles, or pro bono work) they need to get there. After completing all classes and projects, they would evaluate their learning experiences and begin the process anew.

If this all sounds naive or unattainable, consider this: there’s a jurisdiction in Canada already doing something similar.

3. Get rid of CLE requirements altogether
One of the best CLE programs in the country is ICLE. ICLE is consistently leading CLE providers–both nonprofit and for profit–in innovation. In fact, CLE organizations from around the country send teams to ICLE to learn more about how they do what they do. Why is all this interesting? Because ICLE is the education provider of the State Bar of Michigan, and Michigan does not have mandatory CLE. This means that ICLE has to design programs that attract lawyers simply because the programs are valuable to their practices. As a result, they spend every day thinking about how to make their customers better lawyers–today and tomorrow. And their lawyers also get to focus on being better lawyers, instead of focusing on how many credits they have in December. It’s a result that is hard to argue with.

The best argument against a non-mandatory system is, of course, that some lawyers won’t continue to educate themselves. Fair enough. But in a system like the current Colorado system, which allows irresponsible lawyers to shortcut true learning and development in the pursuit of empty credits, are those lawyers truly educating themselves anyway?

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I went climbing yesterday for the first time in a year. I’m not especially talented at this sport in the first place, and the year off didn’t exactly sharpen my skills. I stared up at my destination, finding hand- and footholds here and there until I hit a wall. I saw no way around it (or, in this case, over it).

I gave up and gave Ben the “let me the hell off this rock” sign about halfway up a route I had climbed two years ago without problem. When he kept shaking his head and pointing up, I sat back in the harness and kicked my feet into the rock for support. If he didn’t want to let me down, he could hold me suspended in air as long as he wanted. He finally gave in and brought me down slowly.

Then in his quiet, patient way, he gave me this advice before I tried again: don’t look up at where you’re going—just focus on what you’re doing in each step. Before you know it, you’ll be at the top.

And I was. I did it twice just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.

It’s been almost a year since I blogged, too, if you exclude one post last winter. As time has passed, I’ve thought a lot about what direction to take this thing in and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. So I’m going to stop thinking about it and just take it one foothold at a time. It beats being suspended in air.

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