In 2005, the Illinois Supreme Court instituted minimum continuing legal education requirements for Illinois lawyers. Concurrent with that decision, the Court also established the Commission on Professionalism to promote civility and professionalism among the Illinois bench and bar. Part of that responsibility includes the duty to assist providers in developing professional responsibility CLE courses and activities.
Now, almost a decade later, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism will venture in a new direction for continuing legal education as an accredited provider. In the fall, we will begin offering free distance learning professional responsibility CLE via our 2Civility website. This change came as a result of strategic planning, including an in-depth analysis of our last eight years approving professional responsibility courses.
Professional Responsibility in Illinois
Pursuant to Rule 794(d), the Illinois Supreme Court allows attorneys to take professional responsibility courses in ethics and professionalism, as well as in diversity, civility and mental health. Over the past decade, the Commission has encouraged CLE providers to utilize Rule 794(d) to its fullest extent. Several providers, in particular bar associations and law firms, have taken the baton and offered a wide variety of courses that touch on each of the five professional responsibility areas. Unfortunately, many providers still limit their Illinois professional responsibility offerings to ethics-based courses, and upon occasion, professionalism courses, leaving aside diversity, civility and mental health. Over the past five years, 85-90% of all professional responsibility courses offered in Illinois have been ethics and professionalism focused.
The reasons for this are several. They include the reality that many national providers operate in states where diversity, mental health, civility and even professionalism are not accreditable CLE topics, whereas ethics is. In order to get their professional responsibility courses approved nationally, providers tend to limit their Illinois offerings to ethics. In addition, lawyers, who are most often the presenters, are generally familiar with the topic of ethics but often feel unqualified to venture into the substantive areas of diversity, mental health or even civility. Also the “softer” professional responsibility topics, like professionalism and civility, require more in-depth discussion, and are most productive when a skilled facilitator leads productive discussion among the attorneys present. Facilitation is different than the lecture format that lawyers generally default to when giving presentations. Skilled facilitators are difficult to find, and frequently charge for their services. Many CLE providers, including small firms and bar associations, cannot afford to pay these fees. Finally, like all adult learners, attorneys have numerous obligations and concerns weighing on their mind and often prefer a shorter internet-based course over a longer, more complex diversity or civility workshop, especially if they must travel to the venue.
In addition to the travel time, CLE course fees often are higher than attorneys are willing or able to pay. We know that high-quality education costs providers a great deal, and we note that bar associations have taken the lead in reducing the cost of CLE to their members. However we have heard the many comments from attorneys requesting more low-cost or free CLE courses.
Finally, consistent with adult learning principles, we have long encouraged providers to increase the interactivity in their course offerings. Research shows that learners retain knowledge when they actually practice what they learn, whether via clinics, simulations, re-enactments and of course, discussion. This is particularly important in professional responsibility CLE which explores the application of judgment and experience to nuanced situations rather than black letter law. Unfortunately there are not a lot of course offerings in this vein. For many providers, it has proven difficult to put on a cost-effective, interactive, consistently engaging online professional responsibility CLE course.
A challenging wrinkle to this equation is the reality that many attorneys want more online CLE. Online CLE is preferred particularly by younger attorneys who have long used computers and smartphones as part of their daily professional and personal lives. It is also convenient for those who live in parts of the state where in-person CLE is not offered on a regular basis and for those who travel frequently.
The 2015 CLE Project
For those reasons, and several more, the Commission has set out a 2015 project – to create and offer a free, interactive, online professional responsibility CLE course. We will make it available online, for free, to all 94,000 Illinois attorneys to take at their convenience. We also will make it available to any provider that wishes to incorporate it into their own programming. We hope that this course will serve as a best practices model that will raise the quality and availability of cost-effective, interactive, distance learning CLE courses.
The Commission will continue to facilitate courses on professionalism, diversity and civility for the many bar associations, law firms, industry groups and others who ask us around the state and country. We will also continue our collaboration with law schools on professionalism programming. In addition to our orientation program, and the various programs we facilitate with law school faculty, we will work with our appointed Law School Liaisons at each of the 9 Illinois law schools to develop professionalism programs with student groups in the law schools.
You will be hearing more about our education efforts in the coming months. Please continue to visit our website and get in touch with us if you have any suggestions for our new programming. We look forward to working with you all.