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For the price of an ISBA membership, Illinois lawyers can earn 15 hours of MCLE credit per bar year at their computers and mobile devices. Here's how it works.
When I was asked to write an article on the ISBA's new Free CLE program, I reaped a secondary benefit. Although I work as a writer, I am a lawyer seeking to keep my license active. I had let my ISBA membership lapse and I was falling behind on completing my credits.
I immediately became a member and began putting some of the free, studio-taped CLE classes in my electronic classroom cart. Late one sleepless night, I watched a panel discussion entitled "Admitting Facebook Information into Evidence," streamed to my computer (courses also can be downloaded to an MP3 device). The course was hosted by a panel of evidentiary and technology law experts who touched on issues of employment law, the preservation of evidence and the likelihood of getting Facebook to comply with a subpoena for membership pages and posts from active or deleted Facebook accounts.
The hypothetical involved a John Doe who had been fired after a post appeared on his page condemning his company and its executives. The hour-long course is the most popular, according to statistics kept by CLE staff.
I'm sharing my personal testimonial because I am part of an attorney demographic that the ISBA is hoping to attract with its new Free CLE program: lapsed members; new members; younger, web-obsessed lawyers; those who have shoved aside the countless mailers offering unaffordable CLE packages; people who haven't made time to attend enough noontime lectures; and those who work outside well-heeled firms that routinely host and underwrite the cost of their lawyers' CLE requirements. Education, convenience and one-stop shopping at an affordable price; it seemed like a no-brainer.
To maintain its status as a leading voluntary state bar association, the Association leadership knows it must be progressive, forward thinking, and creative by offering its existing members value for their dues and in continuing to attract new members.
Launched in January, the Free CLE "channel" has gotten a lot of hits and members are finding it very popular, said Jeanne B. Heaton, director of CLE for the bar association.
"We know people have joined [the Association] because of this," said Richard D. Felice, the second Vice-President of the Association who chairs a membership enhancement committee. In addition to potentially recruiting new and former ISBA members, the committee was looking for attractive offerings that would give existing members value for their dues, he said.
From membership surveys the committee learned CLE was a "big component of people's membership interest," Felice said. And it learned, too, that no other private voluntary state bar association - those where membership is not a requirement to practice law in the state - had a free CLE program like the one the committee envisioned. Approximately 30 states and the District of Columbia have government-mandated membership requirements.
Felice and other committee members knew that offering 15 free CLE credits to members each year would be a popular benefit and when he presented the proposal to the Board of Governors, it immediately approved Free CLE.
'We live and die by the hour'
The Illinois Supreme Court in 2005 began requiring attorneys to take continuing legal education classes and created the Supreme Court of Illinois Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) Board to accredit organizations like the ISBA to offer courses. The MCLE board also enforces the MCLE requirements by conducting random audits of attorneys, asking them to show proof of compliance. The supreme court now requires that licensed attorneys complete 30 hours of CLE every two years and that six of those hours be related to professional responsibility.
So, for the price of an ISBA annual membership, a member can complete the CLE requirements without shelling out money for other paid content and live programs.
Once the Board of Governors approved the plan, the CLE staff and the ISBA's CLE Committee went to work. They began reviewing studio-recorded courses from the previous six months, looking for ones that had the best speakers, that were up to date, that had good video quality, and that had received favorable evaluations. First, the CLE staff identified the top courses, representing about 50 hours of content, and then the Association's CLE Committee members and programming subcommittee members viewed the courses and selected 30 courses to upload to the ISBA website.
In selecting the courses, the staff and committee wanted a diverse range of topics that would help educate not just new practitioners, but experienced ones, said Lori Levin, former chair of the ISBA's CLE Committee. "I can tell you that what I'm hearing from folks in the general membership is that people are very thrilled with it," Levin said.
Deeply involved in continuing legal education long before it was a requirement, both at the ISBA and other bar associations, Levin said the ISBA CLE Committee has consistently reached out to all the Association sections, councils and committees to come up with the best quality programming, live or recorded. When the 30-member committee began the task of picking pre-recorded courses for the Free CLE channel, they looked for programming that had been successful and well-rated by the audience and for a mix of courses that covered diverse practice areas.
A Chicago attorney who practices in the areas of criminal defense, juvenile justice and mental health law, Levin said: "I don't think you can practice law if you don't keep up to date." The committee will consistently monitor and review the success of Free CLE, updating the programming to reflect changes in the law and responding to members' needs.
Getting your CLE credit by attending live seminars is extremely valuable, too, since lawyers can share information, network, and approach panel experts face-to-face with questions. "We offer a lot of live programming," Heaton said. "But more and more attorneys are preferring to get their CLE online." She likened the trend to universities offering courses online to students.
"We've selected some of our top programs presented by some of our best speakers," she said of the Free CLE offerings.
Over time, certain courses will fall off the Free CLE curriculum and others will be added, said Annemarie Kill, who headed up the programming subcommittee that selected the Free CLE content. Changes will probably be made every six months or so, she said. "We have to keep it fresh," said Kill, who practices family and employment law at Avery Camerlingo Kill, LLC in Chicago. "The law is changing all the time." And, the committee must consider its members' needs, catering to popular practice concentrations.
She credits the program's popularity to its convenience. "We live and die by the hour," she said. "If people think they can watch it from their office and not have to travel, they'll think it's more efficient."
Still, she believes live programming is also important since it allows lawyers to network, learn from one another and ask questions of the expert panelists face-to-face.
CLE on a smartphone
One busy attorney in Decatur said she doesn't believe she's losing out by relying primarily on webcasts to fulfill her CLE obligations, although she does attend some live programs. "It's extremely convenient," said Katherine Anderson, a junior partner at the Decatur firm of Kehart, Trimble, Wise, Anderson & Booth. An ISBA member since 2008, Anderson's primary practice concentration is medical malpractice defense. She learned about Free CLE from another lawyer at her firm and, in a short period of time, completed the credits she needed.
"I think it's a phenomenal program," Anderson said. "Because I practice in Decatur and a majority of the live programs are offered in Chicago or Springfield, I'm all about doing webcasts or something I can download." She wished there were more courses directly related to medical malpractice defense, but she found plenty of courses that were of interest to her. "I usually [viewed a course] in my office when I had some time, and I could pause it if I needed to take a phone call or answer an email."
The courses she viewed included ones on discovery, evidence, professional responsibility, new Medicaid rules in Illinois, e-discovery, and the Americans with Disability Act.
"It's convenient and it's free. Who can argue with that," Anderson said. And she never once felt a burning desire to ask a question while she watched a course, even though viewers may contact presenters if they have follow-up questions.
John Phipps, who has been an active member of the ISBA for more than 40 years, says he listens to Free CLE courses while he's working out on a treadmill. "I've used my iPhone and iPad to watch and listen," he said. During a vacation in Marco Island earlier in the year, Phipps listened to two evidence seminars at the fitness center where he was staying. "They didn't have anything good on TV except soaps."
At the time of our interview, Phipps was in the middle of listening to a course on Child Custody and the Military Family. A business litigator in Champaign, Phipps routinely accumulates several more CLE credits than is required, and, in general, loves to learn about everything, not just law. A pioneer in the technology field since the days of computer punch cards, Phipps also teaches CLE courses occasionally. He will be on a panel in Chicago, teaching basic computing to seniors whom he says may be reluctant to use computers. Phipps was also instrumental in getting the Association to contract with Fastcase, a legal research tool available to members for free.
Phipps said the sound and video quality of the Free CLE courses is clear even when watching and listening from a smartphone. Another perk: Free CLE makes it affordable for him to take other, paid courses that interest him, "just to expand my general knowledge."
The ISBA has been offering paid live and recorded CLE for several years and has approximately 700 presenters - experts in certain practice areas - who themselves are offered training through a series of faculty development courses on how to be effective educators.
How does it work?
To access Free CLE, a member must log into the ISBA website, click the CLE tab and then the Free CLE tab. Once there, attorneys will find a list of courses, ranging from one to three hours. Clicking on the course places it in your "classroom" bucket and must be viewed within 30 days. After you view the course, you'll be prompted to click on a tab that will download a certificate of completion that you must file away in case you're audited and must prove you've met your requirements.
The courses viewed most between the program's launch in January and the middle of May included Admitting Facebook Information into Evidence, Basic Skills 6.0, Social Networking Ethical Issues, and The New Medicaid Rules in Illinois. (See sidebar for other courses on the free channel.)
Courses involving issues like HIPAA, social networking and the electronic dissemination of information and privacy are popular, said Kill. Other important offerings include the six-hour Basic Skills course that newly admitted attorneys must complete soon after they receive their license and a handful of courses under the rubric of professional responsibility, like mental health, civility, diversity and ethics. Among the 30 hours of credits attorneys must complete, six must be in the area of professional responsibility.
Amanda Wright, a flextime attorney at Seyfarth Shaw, LLP in Chicago, has been an ISBA member since she received her law license in 2001. She discovered the Free CLE channel while visiting the ISBA website and has completed 15 hours of credit this year. "All 15 hours I found were applicable to my practice," said Wright, a labor and employment defense lawyer. "I found several hours of labor and employment and litigation courses; evidence and e-discovery that were useful in general litigation," she said.
No stranger to live programs, Wright says she's always seeking to learn about her practice area and seeks out presenters from whom she can learn something new. "Sometimes, it's a speaker from the plaintiff's side, or judges or representatives from agencies like the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]." She viewed the Free CLE courses in the evenings and during her lunch hours. Recorded in 2012, the courses were fairly recent, an important factor in her decision to use the program. "As the laws change, that's critically important. So I would hope they would continue to offer courses that are up to date and legally accurate."
Michael Delcour, a criminal defense lawyer in Barrington who focuses on federal sentencing laws, completed his 15 hours of CLE credit this year in two weeks using the Free CLE channel. The technology courses, in particular, were of interest to him because he plans on switching careers and becoming a technology consultant. But he wants to keep his license active.
"Being in the suburbs, I'm a little isolated," he said. "My schedule is either completely chaotic, or I'll get some down time." He found the Facebook course particularly helpful because he was involved in a case in which he was seeking evidence from a Facebook account of someone who had died. "We weren't getting anywhere requesting records from Facebook, and I learned that you need a California attorney to subpoena."
Janan Hanna is a Chicago freelance writer and a licensed attorney. A former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, she writes for numerous news organizations.
ISBA has produced two very short, very useful Free CLE tutorial videos:
• ISBA's Free CLE How To's
• How to Certify Credit for ISBA's Free CLE
View them at www.isba.org/freecle
While the lineup might change, the following programs are slated for the Free CLE channel. To find out more and access the free channel, visit www.isba.org/freecle.