I recently attended my first Association for Continuing Legal Education (ACLEA) conference right here in Chicago 

A recurring theme I heard was how to enhance legal education to change the hearts and minds of lawyers who view CLE as a time suck. If my two decades of teaching and facilitating has taught me anything, it’s that if your audience comes into the room thinking “I have a million things to do,” then the phrase “tough crowd” doesn’t even begin to describe the experience you’re going to have.  

It’s at this point that the CLE-as-a-time-suck conversation often goes a little quiet; there are a few subtle nods of agreement and someone may even cough. However, no one wants to say whats often whispered – that lawyers may be prioritizing short-term rewards over long-term professional development. No one wants to acknowledge that a continuous learning culture in the legal profession is still in its infancy, at best.  

I will confess, in my weaker moments I too have raised a quivering finger in the direction of this lazy catch-all for our CLE woes. But then the learning strategist in me reminds myself that lawyers are humans and have been known to behave as humans on a regular basis. 

So, in the name of a kitchen table science (as opposed to generously funded science), let’s remove the law from the lawyers, but keep the human.  

A legal educator’s dilemma  

Legal educators, image this scenario: your colleague walks up to you looking frustrated. You inquire as to whats wrong, and they begin to lament.  

“I just facilitated a continuing legal education classThe students were a nightmare.” 

“Uh oh. Who were the students?” 

“Well, there were about 40 of them sat in rows facing me. They had different experiences and expectationsand came from different departments. Theyve been trained to seek out the underlying truth and were skeptical of unsupported new information. The topic was broadly related to their industry, but not specific to them or their role in it. They were required to be there for exactly one hour and had to make up any work they missed. Oh, and it could be argued they were losing potential income while in the session. Obviously, I had to stick to the content in the presentation because it had been agreed upon six weeks prior, so I deflected any questions that were tangential or specific to issues they were having individually in their work.” 

“OK. Anything else?” you ask. 

“Yes! I had text animations. And a fun quiz. I really don’t know what was wrong with them. They just didn’t seem that into it…” 

This course sounds fun, right? Maybe not. Yetwe blame the lawyers when they tune out formulaic and impersonal CLE.  

So, heres my broad-brush contentionlawyers could be the best students, but they could also be the worst.    

Leading from behind 

The Harvard Business Review article “Leading from Behind” has some relevance here. In a learning context, leading from behind would simply mean that the facilitator takes a step back and the learners take a step forward by bringing their wealth of experience to a course and incorporating it in a meaningful way.  

If we open the session to allow learners to be part of the processthey become an essential element of the experience. Their insight, knowledge and direction can customize the class in a way that offers real value to other learners.   

If you’re not sure what this looks like, here’s a simple test: if you’d give the same presentation to 100 participants that you’d give to an empty room, you aren’t leading from behind.  

Lawyers as star students 

Lawyers, possibly more than any other profession, have a healthy cynicism when it comes to new ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting theyre opposed to them. However, they do challenge and dissect new concepts, then form their own conclusions based on what they know to be logical and true.This makes an awful herd of sheep but great lawyers 

If educators open up the learning to be interactivethen lawyers can be star students. Imagine a continuing legal education course where a problem is laid out, pertinent facts are provided and the class is asked to solve the problem and then report their findingsThe ideal audience for this format would be, in reverse order, engineers, lawyers and then 7-year-olds 

Sohow can educators structure CLEs to take advantage of the common traits and skill sets of lawyers? Consider the objective of the learning experience. If youre trying to get everyone moving in the same direction at the same time, you need sheep. And a sheep dog. It gets the job done in the required amount of time and there isn’t much pushback.   

Conversely, if you ask a room of lawyers to move in the same direction at the same time, theyre going to stop and ask why. And if they don’t have the opportunity to ask, theyll tune outLawyers have been called many things, but a herd of sheep isn’t one of them.  

Lawyers as the worst students  

Sometimes, as an educator, you just need to get the job done. Yes, ideally each learning session would be a personalized learning experience, but that’s not reality. Opening classes up for students to be content contributors can be fraught with risk for the uninitiated. Random monologues, unrelated sidebars and worrying opinions can all feature heavily in a less-controlled learning environment.  

It takes a skilled facilitator to manage those dynamics. Often, facilitators are there because of a specialization or practice area, not their classroom management skills. So, the tried and true lecture format is used to balance many unknowns. Who can be blamed for that?  

However, common traits seen in lawyers – cynicism to unproven ideas, challenging assumptions and needing to understand the underlying why – can turn the standard class format on its headIn a world where almost any idea is instantly availablelawyers may ask WIIFM? If the answer isn’t obvious, then why bother listening? 

TL:DR summary 

In short, the continuing legal education field must take a step back and reevaluate what it considers learner-centered design. In doing so, we may realize that we’re selling the profession short 

Legal educators have a unique opportunity that many learning professionals don’t – an educated, inquisitive and thoughtful audience thats trained to think. I mean really think 

So next time youre considering leading a CLE, lunch and learn or a mentoring session, consider these questions with your audience in mind: “What problem are they trying to solve?What facts do they need? and How can I take a step back and let them solve it?

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