Wash, Rinse, Repeat: Using Learning Pathways to Guide Your CLE Strategy

To quote Oscar Wilde – “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

As a former teacher, I particularly like this quote because the thing that impresses me most about people, whether a stranger, colleague, or friend, isn’t the breadth of their education, but how they use the education they have.

This blog, which is directed at CLE providers, is a call for us to work smarter when it comes to developing learning pathways for lawyers. If Wilde was correct that learning, not education, is the overarching goal then education must serve as our GPS, not a finite end to be ticked off a list.

One and not done

Most learning professionals agree that education that stops in the classroom and isn’t supported by practical experience and reflection misses some key components of learning and growth. In this case, lawyers may be highly educated, but they also risk becoming stagnant.

This is where professional development experts can step in to provide much-needed structure. These educational structures are known by a range of names, but they are essentially a series of skills and attributes needed to succeed in a particular area.

The Delta Model is just one example in law, as is the Comprehensive Judicial Education Plan for Illinois Judges. The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System also just published a comprehensive set of tools that highlight a cross-curricular set of skills lawyers need.

After identifying the skills attorneys need to succeed, providers can then develop learning pathways for lawyers. These pathways should consist of courses, practice, and reflections that have a tight focus and specific goals linked to benchmarks.

It’s important to clarify that I’m not simply advocating for a series of diversity, equity, and inclusion or ethics courses spread out over months. Learning paths are not curated course collections.

The success of this method relies on the use of tiers or levels of mastery. Just as the goal of learning Spanish may be to understand “Don Quixote” in its original form, giving someone the book and telling them “you’re done when you can read this” is counterproductive.

However, if they were presented with a set of incrementally harder activities that lead up to reading the book, each building on the previous, then it would likely be much more motivating and effective.

This concept of digging down into topics through multiple sessions, sometimes referred to as a spiral curriculum, isn’t new or innovative. Just think back to law school and ask yourself if your 1L classes prepared you for more complex classes during your second and third years? Now imagine you had the opportunity to practice what you learned in 1L in a law firm, alongside a lawyer.

This intentionality in instructional design is at the core of successful professional development models and can provide consistent, objective, and equitable benchmarks for all.

All benchmarks aren’t created equal

Developing equitable benchmarks doesn’t mean that all lawyers will follow the same learning pathways. Learning competency models like Delta are designed to be personalized for the experience and goals of each lawyer.

For example, new lawyers won’t come to a learning experience with the practical practice knowledge and skills of senior partners. However, a new lawyer may have a better understanding and mastery of topics such as technology or social media marketing and could reasonably expect to move quickly to more complex concepts in those areas.

The key here is incremental steps. Learning pathways assume that the learner is less adept in a topic area at the beginning, and slowly demonstrates increasing mastery by reaching a series of benchmarks of understanding.

Learning pathways are managed by the learner, however, they need providers or employers to build out the wider framework of required knowledge, skills, and abilities within which they can develop their learning pathways.

It’s important to keep in mind that no matter where a learner starts, be it at the beginning or the end, the goal isn’t how many courses they complete to support each benchmark, but if they have reached the desired benchmark and can demonstrate it consistently.

Developing learning pathways at your organization

CLE providers likely fall into one of three camps at this point:

  1. I get it, we have the resources and are already mapping attorney success to benchmarks.
  2. I get it, we have the resources, but we aren’t doing it.
  3. I am a team of one, are you kidding me?

If you are in camp 1, excellent. Please share your professional development model with colleagues, friends, and anyone who will listen.

If you are in camp 2, then here is the business case: it’s less expensive in the long run to have a robust, scalable, and replicable professional development model based on proven competencies that all employees can identify with and aspire to.

Moreover, learning pathways for lawyers that are holistic and sustainable (not just billable hours) can highlight talent in unexpected places and significantly reduce wasted CLE hours.

If you’re in camp 3, try this:

  1. Identify one area that lawyers in your organization need to be successful (communications, business acumen, cultural competency, etc.)
  2. Identify one or two people you know who excel in that area. Ask them for two or three skills and abilities they feel are needed to master the topic.
  3. Write down three “Can” statements for that each skill that attorneys at various levels of learning would agree with. An example around communication would be:
    • Beginner – I can succinctly communicate intent through email.
    • Intermediate – I can communicate subtlety and nuance through written methods.
    • Mastery – I can communicate in complex and challenging situations across multiple channels while avoiding conflict.
  4. Ask your faculty network to develop a 30-minute course tailored to each level statement and nothing more. Keep it simple.
  5. Test the courses with a cohort group of learners and include opportunities for feedback.
  6. Rinse and repeat.

Put in the effort, reap the rewards

Learning pathways for lawyers are the result of a concerted effort to identify a wide range of knowledge, skills, and abilities, and then categorize them in a structure that is simple and understandable.

While this approach may mean a significant amount of work in the short term, it will simplify learning programs and improve professional development efforts for your attorneys and your organization in the long term.

If you aren’t in a position to build off an existing professional development model (like the Delta Model or the Comprehensive Judicial Education Plan for Illinois Judges), my advice is to start with something small and contained. Try to identify competency benchmarks that can be supported by mentors, CLE, and practice.

Finally, know that you can adapt, innovate, and update your framework to meet the changing needs of your constituents and the profession.

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