Painful or Purposeful? Flipping the Narrative on CLE for Lawyers

cle for lawyersIn December 2019, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) released its annual Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms. Across the board, progress for women and people of color is, to quote the report commentary, “at a rate so slow as to almost seem imperceptible at times.”

Additionally, a recent report from the American Bar Foundation (ABF) Scholars found that bias in the legal workplace continues to be widespread.

It’s been over two years since the advent of the 1-hour of mandatory diversity & inclusion (D&I) CLE for lawyers in Illinois. One could argue that there simply hasn’t been enough time for D&I CLE to impact the lack of diversity in the legal profession. Maybe.

What can be argued is that the two reports demonstrate the unfortunate truth: efforts to combat inequity and bias in the profession aren’t working. And, as the primary driver of formal professional development training in the legal field, CLE must shoulder some of the blame.

CLE for Lawyers: Measuring the ROI

Measuring the return on investment (ROI) of training programs is a notoriously tricky business. There are several touchpoints that, if not addressed, can render training ineffective. They include:

  1. What is the actual issue?
  2. Can it be solved by training? (I recommend using Cathy Moore’s work on action mapping to identify when training is appropriate.)
  3. What types of training should be utilized?
  4. Was the training any good?
  5. Has the original issue been solved? How do you know?

Additionally, the answer may lie within everyday employee experiences, structural processes and policies, or even the culture of the organization. These are areas that training can improve, but can’t resolve alone.

One sure-fire way to measure the ROI of training is desired outcomes. That is, has the data that identified the initial issue changed to the desired levels.

The NALP and ABF reports got me thinking about ways to improve the measurement of CLE outcomes. And that, perhaps, the ROI for D&I training isn’t at the appropriate level.

If the desired outcome for D&I CLE for lawyers is the reduction of bias and inequity in the legal profession, then it hasn’t been successful. But does that mean it was wasted time? I’d argue no. The significant effort that has gone into D&I training has created an awareness that wasn’t there before. However, if the goal is to make the profession not just aware of bias and inequity but a more equitable profession for all, we need to improve our approach.

Tasks, Skills, and Behaviors

When you think of CLE for lawyers, what comes to mind? Maybe a conference speaker, a local bar association event, or an online course? When it comes to professional responsibility (PR) CLE, I suspect it’s a single learning event.

Having single learning events is great for scheduling, but terrible for learning. That’s because, just as we learn over time, we also forget. The instructional experience needs to match the learner’s needs and goals. A repetitive task (e.g., submitting expenses or using an app) requires a different type of learning experience than knowledge or skill transfer (e.g., educating yourself on a new practice area), which, in turn, requires a different learning experience than changing a behavior (e.g., pausing and identifying bias).

PR CLE typically falls into the “changing a behavior” category. Topics like professionalism, ethics, civility, diversity, and mental health don’t tend to have black and white answers. When we work in the grey, we each bring our own background, viewpoints, and experiences to the emotive subject. In describing a changed viewpoint, people often say their view has evolved. And, to a degree, that’s what happens.

Learning is an evolution, not a revolution. A series of experiences coupled with new information causes us to first challenge, then adjust our viewpoint. But, in the end, it’s always driven by our internal timetable. Why? Because humans are stubborn. If your mind was changed, it’s because you were open to it first.

I mention all of this to support my point:

  1. D&I in the legal profession hasn’t improved, despite new initiatives.
  2. CLE providers need to recognize their part in these outcomes.
  3. The current “one and done” CLE structure isn’t supported by research on long-term learning and behavior change.

Attorneys: Use your CLE time wisely

To change the profession’s approach to CLE, attorneys and CLE providers must both be involved.

For attorneys, choosing a learning goal is part art, part science. Whatever your professional interest (e.g., strengthening your resiliency or changing firm culture to retain diverse lawyers), consider focusing much of your CLE on a learning goal. Then commit to becoming a resource on it.

Focus on being honest about what topics interest you and where you need assistance. Once you’ve centered on a topic, think through a logical progression to addressing that topic. Then look for CLEs that address those steps. A good structure might be:

  1. Defining the challenge
  2. Applying the challenge to a situation
  3. Outlining steps to overcome the challenge
  4. Going beyond individual experience
  5. Inspiring long-term change

For example, let’s look at bias:

  1. What is bias?
  2. How does bias impact me and those around me?
  3. What are strategies to counter bias?
  4. What’s the difference between personal and organizational bias?
  5. How can we implement policies to eliminate bias?

The Role of CLE Providers

Affinity bar associations and non-profit legal organizations are a good place to start in searching out CLE for lawyers on pertinent topics. But what happens when attorneys look for CLE that fits their professional interest, but it’s not there?

That’s where CLE administrators and providers come in. By looking at their programming as part of a larger systemic goal, administrators and providers can support attorney development through coherent and effective CLE pathways.

Providers should start by examining the industry’s current challenges as well as attorneys’ values and goals. Is your CLE programming derived from or working toward these areas?

Consider measuring the success of your programming by identifying measurable outcomes. For example, an anonymous survey on how confident attorneys are in identifying personal biases could provide baseline data for a series of eLearnings on recognizing what influences bias. A follow-up survey 3 months, 6 months, and/or 1 year later would provide data on changes to behaviors and attitudes.

In addition, some firms allow their practice groups to develop their own curriculum based on the unique needs and experiences of the group. CLE programming decisions are weighed against the group’s curriculum and goals, which enables concepts to be reinforced and behaviors to be strengthened over time.

Whatever your curriculum structure, aim to lay out a series of small, progressive steps toward a goal. It may also be worth considering prerequisite courses for topics. For example, lock registration for an in-person “Eliminating Bias in the Legal Workplace” CLE until the completion of an online “Intro to Bias” course. This can be done in most learning management systems.

Is it worth it?

I’m asking a lot, I know. So, asking “Is it worth it?” is a valid question. Ultimately, that’s for you to decide.

CLE for lawyers is a vital personal and professional development tool in this constantly evolving profession. Taking the time to plan out your required CLE hours will reduce frustration and help you progress toward your goals more effectively.

The preamble to Part C of the Illinois Supreme Court rules on Minimum Continuing Legal Education states that the rules:

“…are intended to assure that those attorneys licensed to practice law in Illinois remain current regarding the requisite knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill the professional responsibilities and obligations of their respective practices and thereby improve the standards of the profession in general.”

Embrace this by actively searching for – or developing – courses targeted at achieving a goal. In short, flip the narrative and commit to viewing CLE as an opportunity, not a chore.

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