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More attorneys are turning to online programming to get CLE credit

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A time change, a 2.5-hour drive and the stress that comes with trying to find a parking space during rush hour convinced Evansville attorney Laura Scott to leave a day early and book a hotel room for the night.

The partner at Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn LLP was preparing to depart from her office one recent Monday afternoon and drive to Louisville for a continuing legal education class that did not begin until 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Licensed in both Kentucky and Indiana, Scott has to log several CLE hours each year. Sometimes she has to travel a distance to take classes, other times she can walk down the street to the Evansville Bar Association to attend a session. Occasionally, she downloads an on-demand continuing education legal video and watches it from her desktop computer.

Since 2006, Indiana attorneys have been allowed to count CLE classes offered over the Internet toward their total required continuing education hours. The popularity of online programs has been growing among lawyers primarily because of the convenience. Lawyers do not have to budget travel time into their schedules to attend a seminar.

To feed the appetite for online CLE courses, the Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum is among the CLE providers that have increased Internet offerings in response to demand from attorneys. Starting with about 25 online programs in 2006, the organization now has an estimated 50 to 60 online classes ranging from one-hour sessions on specific topics to six-hour seminars covering broad subject matters.

Feedback on these programs has been positive, said Scott King, program director at ICLEF. Attorneys like the freedom to watch when they want and they like having the ability to stop and review segments of the presentation they may not have understood.

“I think it will evolve in some way but it’s certainly here to stay,” he said. “I think it’s proven to be an effective and convenient way for attorneys to get information.”

Changing technology

Under the Indiana Rules for Admission to the Bar and Discipline of Attorneys, licensed lawyers are required to complete no less than 36 hours of approved CLE courses during a three-year period. Currently, no more than six of those class hours may be taken online.

Raise the limit on how many hours an attorney can take online and more will turn to their computers and tablets for continuing legal education, King said.

“The interest is increasing, but it has been a fairly consistent percentage of people attending the programs in large part because of the six hours restriction.”

Marc Abplanalp, an attorney in Student Legal Services at Indiana University, turned to an on-demand CLE video when he was short of the hours he needed for 2012. From his office computer he watched the program, starting and stopping it when he took a break or got a phone call.

“As long as you don’t mind not being in the same room as the speaker in the CLE, I think it’s a great way to get the credit,” Abplanalp said. “It’s got ultimate flexibility and convenience.”

Without having the online programming available, Abplanalp would likely have had to take a whole day off work and drive to Indianapolis for a live program.

Frequently, the Indiana Commission for Continuing Legal Education is asked what programming meets the criteria for online classes, which are considered distance education under the admission rule. It has been considering an update to the rule to clarify what constitutes distance education, said Julia Orzeske, executive director of the commission. Even so, changing the rules takes time and with technology advancing at a rapid pace, any new rule could be outdated before it goes into effect.

Instead, she advocates paying attention to what the CLE courses are teaching rather than how the classes are being delivered to the participants.

“I would like to take a look at it as far as meaningful content,” Orzeske said. “Technology is a part of that but (we need to) look at the overall quality of course” to determine whether a program counts toward CLE credit.

In regards to content, King pointed out that online programming can cover very narrow, niche subjects. A live CLE class on a constrained topic would probably not attract enough participants to cover the expense of offering the program, but online audience size makes no difference. The course can be put on the Internet and attorneys who practice in that narrow field can access it and learn from it.

Abplanalp liked the on-demand video he watched about trial strategy. He took notes and learned practical skills that he believes will help him the next time he is in court.

Adult learners

Getting quality content online takes more than setting up the video camera and pushing the “on” button. Some speakers and some courses are more effective than others when streamed over the Internet.

The structure of the program and its format have to be carefully considered, said Cheri Harris, director of continuing legal education at the Indiana State Bar Association. Like Orzeske, Harris said the primary focus should be on content, not the electronics.

“In my opinion, just from the standpoint of education, not every program is suited for online,” she said.

More than the technology, Harris said the objective should be to engage adult learners in a variety of ways. Some are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and some learn by doing, so the better programs cater to all these learning abilities.

In Evansville, Scott uses online CLE classes because she does not have to go to a different location and she can watch them when her schedule allows.

However, she prefers to attend CLE programs in person. Being in the same room as the presenter and other lawyers is a much more enriching experience, Scott said, because she can participate in question-and-answer segments and engage in discussions with the other attorneys. She learns a great deal from the informal conversations that happen during breaks or after class.

Also, she said attending a live CLE removes her from the distractions of her office. Even when she closes her door and disconnects her phone, she can still get interrupted by colleagues.

Abplanalp agreed that going to a live program is more engaging. However, he said if he returned to solo private practice, he would likely take as many online CLE hours as he was allowed under the rule because of the convenience – he would not have to leave his office nor be unavailable to his clients.

“This is extremely valuable to today’s busy attorneys,” he said.•

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