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CLE done right

Lawyers should see continuing legal education and professional development as an opportunity, not an obligation.

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Continuing legal education is a requirement for all lawyers in Canada, with most law societies requiring a certain number of hours per year. But many lawyers are not making the best use of this mandatory education, says legal expert Jordan Furlong.

Furlong, a legal-sector analyst and consultant based in Ottawa, says there are two ways that lawyers can approach their requirement for legal education each year.

"The first is that you look on this obligation as an administrative duty or a box you have to check," he says. "You will sign up for programs, or you will download a lecture and you will put it up on your computer and you will play it during lunch while you are also playing Wordle or whatever the case may be. But essentially, you look at it as something that has to be gotten through but is not going to provide you any particular value."

But there can be another way to look at continuing education.

"The other and preferable way to approach it is as an opportunity," says Furlong. "This is an opportunity for you to refocus on the work you are doing or focus on the skills you are trying to acquire."

These skills can include legal knowledge such as case law updates or business and networking skills.

"This requires the lawyer to sit down to think, 'Where do I want to be a year from now? What do I want to have accomplished in terms of getting better as a lawyer, as a professional, as a businessperson, as an entrepreneur?'" says Furlong. "Make that plan and chart that out, and when you have gone through that process, then you can choose the education and the skill development you want to acquire."

Furlong recommends that lawyers view legal education as an opportunity rather than an obligation.

"If it's an obligation, you will do the basic minimum to get it out of the way and over and done with, but I seriously doubt you will learn that much and you will not gain as much of an advantage as the other lawyers in your community who are looking on it as an opportunity to get better, to get more competitive, to become more effective, to become more profitable, more satisfied, whatever their goal happens to be," he says.

Linda W. Russell, the chief executive officer of the Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia, or CLEBC, says that in being mindful of their learning goals, lawyers must develop a multi-year plan, ideally. "They need to self-assess. Where are they in their career? Where are they in what they want to learn? And create their own plan."

According to Russell, lawyers should also consider learning skills that will help their practice beyond the substance of the law. They can focus on ethics, cultural competency, practice management, and trauma-informed practice.

"Understanding these topics will help you be a more well-rounded lawyer. It will also make you a better problem-solver for your client," she says.

One area where Russell has seen increased demand is in wellness and wellbeing skills in a profession where the rates of alcoholism and drug abuse are "astoundingly high." She adds that lawyers cannot be effective in their profession unless they are well themselves. "There has been a trend that wellness is a core competency, which I think is great. It is something that lawyers really need to have in order to effectively represent their clients," she says. "You really can't practice law well if you yourself are struggling, and so we've had a whole variety of courses that have covered those areas."

Russell also recommends that lawyers contemplate how they learn, what works for them, and their preferences when developing an education plan.

CLEBC, a provider of legal education, tries to incorporate different learning styles into their courses, she says.

"We want to make sure that we incorporate different learning activities that address those different learning styles throughout the courses," says Russell. "The last two years have been particularly challenging because everything has been online. We have been incorporating a lot more interactive exercises with the Zoom calls just to engage people."

Hence the importance, says Furlong, for lawyers to seek out opportunities to gain skills in the format that works best for them.

"Everyone is going to have a preferred way to obtain and digest information," he says. "Some people acquire information hands-on by getting experience. For some people, it is in discussions with others or opportunities to learn from peers."

The  traditional lecture format is pobably not the best way to learn for most lawyers, says Furlong, even though it's "the default setting that we have been doing for decades."

"It's difficult to sit for an hour while someone drones on to actually absorb the information and use it to become more effective at what you are doing," he says. "I really wish the profession generally would embrace the idea that learning experientially, learning with or from peers can be better than just sitting down and being a passive absorber in a lecture."

Russell says one of the goals of CLEBC is to make its courses fun and interesting.

"We know that when we have lawyers online, they probably have their other screen open with their email. We have to look at how to engage them," she says.

In the future, Russell says that she expects courses to be offered both online and in person.

"There is a desire – I've heard it from our board and from our customers – they want to continue with some of that online learning. We are not going back to business as usual," she says. "We are in a changing world. It is going to keep changing. Just like all of us are not necessarily going back to working in the office like we did before now there is much more of a hybrid workforce and a hybrid working environment."