Raising the Bar for Professional Responsibility CLE

Professional Responsibility CLEHave you ever told yourself “I really should [insert personal goal here]”? If yes, then this post is for you.

About two months ago, my teenage son recommended that I play goalie during a soccer game so I “could take a break.”

“Right, that’s it,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to the gym at least three times a week from now on. No excuses.”

I’ve reflected on that since. It’s a good thought with many obvious benefits, and one I fully intend to act upon. As soon as possible.

The Procrastination Predicament

Procrastination is a powerful force when it comes to making positive changes. Countless studies have supported what we all know: humans can really want to do something, yet simultaneously actively avoid doing it.

When it comes to changing behavior, the catalyst for a decision is often a single event. However, that decision may have been in the making for a while. In many ways the decision to act is the easy part. Delivery is where it gets difficult.

We all react to personal change differently. However, a common theme in most change models is that change is a process that’s implemented over time. We need to weigh the inconveniences of our commitment to change against the benefits accrued.

The Professional Responsibility CLE Problem

You’re likely familiar with the diversity, mental health and substance abuse challenges in the legal industry. For many years, lawyers and law firms have been impacted by the devastating effects of these deeply entrenched institutional issues, such as lower rates of representation in women and people of color as partners compared to associates, or high rates of depression and suicide across the profession.

Yet, before July 1, 2017, diversity and inclusion and mental health and substance abuse were rarely covered in CLE programs. In fact, only 349 courses were registered in Illinois from 2015-2017.

It can be argued that these issues are some of the most significant challenges facing the profession. However, it was in paralysis in terms of teaching lawyers how to make meaningful changes that could generate significant long-term benefits. And it was having an impact. As mentioned above, data from a 2016 ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study found the levels of depression, anxiety and stress among attorneys were significant, with 28%, 19% and 23% experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.

In addition, NALP’s 2016 Report on Diversity in Law Firms showed that while representation of women, minorities and minority women among associates saw small gains that year, it still remained below pre-2009 recession levels.

Addressing the Imbalance

Several factors contributed to the imbalance between the legal community’s challenges and the lack of educational resources addressing these issues. First, professional responsibility CLE wasn’t required to cover diversity and inclusion and mental health prior to July 2017. Second, they’re difficult topics that can carry some perceived stigma. For example, colleagues may speculate why Bill was out of the office for a seminar on mental health.

Finally, cultural competency and sexual harassment trainings have traditionally been HR-mandated events implemented only after regrettable incidents that we try not to discuss at annual staff meetings. If a firm hosted a seminar on sexual harassment, would it appear to be an admission of guilt?

Given this educational gap, in 2017 the Commission on Professionalism developed a recommendation that, of the six hours of professional responsibility CLE required in Illinois per two-year reporting period, one hour of that be dedicated to diversity and inclusion and one hour to mental health and substance abuse issues. The Illinois Supreme Court accepted the recommendation, and Rule 794(d)(2) was changed to reflect the new requirements beginning with the reporting period ending June 30, 2019.

Impact of the Change

The immediate impact was tangible. In the last two years, roughly half of Illinois attorneys have been exposed to issues of diversity and mental health in the legal profession through professional responsibility CLE. By 2021, almost all attorneys will have studied these topics in some capacity.

In addition, many bar associations and law firms have taken the opportunity to include diversity and mental health as a central focus for conferences and professional development seminars. Also, an important benefit that’s sometimes overlooked is that by requiring mental health CLE, Bill (who we mentioned earlier) no longer has to worry about the stigma surrounding a course because his colleagues have to attend it too.

Will two hours every two years drive wholesale change in the industry? No. As I mentioned previously, lasting change comes from weaving intentionality into a process, not a single event. However, the rule was never intended to create a series of individual changes. Instead, by ensuring that all Illinois lawyers become more knowledgeable and comfortable discussing these topics, the issues will become normalized as topics that can be addressed regularly in firms and organizations.

CLE is often seen as a chore; a box you need to check. But the simple act of taking an hour to learn about a challenge impacting your community, and then pausing to look around and ponder who’s silently effected, isn’t insignificant. It’s a small but essential part of a wider movement to equip all lawyers with the tools they need to exemplify the highest values of the profession.

Learn more about our free online professional responsibility CLE programs here.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

One thought on “Raising the Bar for Professional Responsibility CLE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *