Continuing Legal Education
The purpose of continuing legal education is to maintain or sharpen the skills of licensed attorneys and judges. Accredited courses examine new areas of the law or review basic practice and trial principles. Programs for continuing legal education are sponsored by state, local, and federal bar associations, law firms, law schools, and groups such as the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Law Institute.
Continuing legal education is mandatory in 40 states; voluntary programs are offered in the remaining 10. Courses are approved by state boards that oversee continuing education. In states with mandatory continuing legal education, attorneys receive credits for attending lectures and seminars taught by respected attorneys, judges, and scholars. The courses cover a variety of topics involving virtually all areas of practice. Written program materials are usually included as part of the tuition fee.
A 1974 informal poll conducted by state and local bar associations revealed widespread support for compulsory continuing legal education. The measure was favored to ensure professional competence and to improve the public image of lawyers. Supporters believed that continuing legal education would reduce the number of Legal Malpractice suits, keep lawyers updated on important changes in the law, and improve the representation of clients. A year later, in 1975, Minnesota became the first state to adopt mandatory continuing legal education. The Minnesota Legislature appeared ready to take over the administration of continuing legal education; the Minnesota Supreme Court, however, preferred judicially mandated education, and took appropriate steps to institute it. The court ordered all Minnesota lawyers and judges to complete 45 hours of post-admission legal education every three years.
The Code of Professional Responsibility adopted by every state maintains that lawyers must remain proficient in their work. Continuing legal education is one way to achieve professional competence. Other professions such as medicine, education, and accounting also require continuing education. Beginning in the 1990s, states added specific content requirements. For example, Minnesota requires that in each reporting cycle attorneys must take three hours of ethics-related coursework and two hours of coursework related to the elimination of bias in the legal profession. The state of California requires attorneys to take one hour per reporting cycle of coursework on the prevention and detection of substance abuse.
The delivery of continuing legal education has changed over time. Although most programs are presented at the local level, many providers now videotape sessions and replay them at a variety of sites around a state. This allows attorneys in rural areas and more remote locations to earn their credits locally. In addition, national providers such as the ABA produce seminars that are delivered through satellite transmissions to cities around the United States.
In most states where continuing legal education is required, nonpracticing lawyers may elect to be on restricted status. This means they can maintain their law license but do not have to fulfill continuing education requirements. Sometimes hardship or Mitigating Circumstances exempt practicing attorneys from a continuing education requirement.
MacCrate, Robert, ed. 1992. Legal Education and Professional Development: An Educational Continuum. St. Paul, Minn.: West.
Sheran, Robert J., and Laurence C. Harmon. 1976. Minnesota Plan: Mandatory Continuing Legal Education for Lawyers and Judges as a Condition for the Maintaining of Professional Licensing. Reprinted in Fordham Law Review (May).