Are Today’s CLE Programs Doomed to Go the Way of the Newspaper?

Are in-person CLE events as we know them today doomed to extinction? Will they go the way of the newspaper? Will they all be replaced by Internet designed education? Is this as inevitable as NetFlix’ triumph over Blockbuster? With one or two important exceptions, the answer is a resounding YES! The world of legal education is going to dramatically transform, along with the rest of society, whether it likes it or not. The world is moving to global, asynchronous, cyber communications. Law and education may be somewhat slower to change than the rest of society, but change they will. Those on top today, if they do not change with the times, and change fast, will surely be the dinosaurs of tomorrow.

Change Is Good

This coming revolution in CLEs is a good thing, a very good thing. What we are doing now is not working. I have spent the last four years at countless CLE events, listening and presenting. It is what my friend and master CLE presenter, Browning Marean, calls the rubber chicken circuit. I’ve also done more webinars and attended more industry events than I can remember. Some were good. Most were not. Some were fun, most were boring. I picked up a few bits here and there, but as for real learning, not so much. If real learning takes place at a typical CLE today, it is a rare accident, and usually comes during a coffee break or dinner. That is not the fault of the many master presenters out there. It is the fault of the setting. It is the medium, not the message.

Those who ride the circuit with me know the limits of CLEs today, but we keep trying anyway. The profession is obviously still falling behind. We are all looking for a better way. We know that most lawyers in the legal profession are baffled by technology, by e-discovery. We know that most lawyers are lost in mountains of ESI. Despite all of our efforts most still do not know how to find the electronic smoking guns. The evidence has changed too fast from paper to digits for most lawyers to follow.

Online is Not the Only Way

As I have written time and again, online education is a key part of the answer, but, as I will explain here, it is not the only answer. The future of education is not all online. Some old-school dinosaurs will survive. They will morph into birds and fly. Some already have.

Ride the Change, Don’t Fight It

Those in the legal education business who see and ride these changes will prosper, the rest will fade away. Look at history, look at the horse and buggy. Look at recent events, look at video rental stores, bookstores, newspapers. That is just the way it is. The Internet and the new generations are changing everything, again. That is the way it has always been. It is just that change is happening much faster now than ever before.

Some in the legal education business will see the electronic writing on the wall and change with the times. Some education companies will go online, as I have done with Electronic Discovery Law Training, and create true Internet based, interactive, quality programs.  A few academic schools may too. They will offer asynchronous series of coursework designed especially for the Internet, including personal interactivity with experts and mass collaborative elements. This is the project I have been secretly working on for the past two years and finally debuted this week.

This is online education that takes advantage and uses the medium. It is not just putting a video on the Net of an in-person event. Yawn. That is bogus online education in name only. Webinars are not much better. They are usually just audio streams of invisible voices, or video streams of talking heads, where you may also see a lame PowerPoint slide or two. Yawn again and not very effective. But as other companies follow my lead, either by collaboration with the e-Discovery Team Blog program, or formation of competitive programs, they will prosper. They are going with the time, like NetFlix and Amazon. Check out their stock performance over the last five years compared to BlockBuster and Barnes & Noble and you will see what I mean.

Some Kinds of In-Person CLE Events May Still Grow and Prosper

Online programs will surely grow and prosper in the next few years, especially as they get better and better, more and more engaging and creative. But in-person CLEs will not disappear entirely, as is happening with bricks and mortar video rental stores. They will transform. Indeed, some off-line, bricks and mortar CLEs will not only survive, they will thrive.

There is a place for bricks and mortar, for real-time, 3-dimensional encounters. The right kind of off-line events will prosper, the ones that play to the strengths of real-time face-to-face events, and are true conferences and conventions, not lectures. They will continue in the Internet age, just like Starbucks. Good examples of this are the LegalTech conventions and The Sedona Conference meetings. CLE credits may still be awarded at some of these events, but the primary purpose will be convention-like. They will be true conferences that promote dialogue, not hierarchical top down instruction.

Successful off-line, in-person education events in the future will create a setting for like-minded professionals to meet, to network, see old friends and make new ones. Actual instruction and teaching will be secondary, and when it is set-up, it will be more democratic and spontaneous. A few experts will gather, say what they are working on now, and open up for questions and talk. Craig Ball, George Socha and I did that last year at New York Legal Tech and it was a great success. We answered whatever questions were thrown at us. There was a good crowd with more questions and comments than there was time to answer. We did not need a script, nor an outline. We did not need to rehearse, to prepare. We all had a good time and enjoyed ourselves. If I recall, we even wore doctor outfits for some reason (ask Clearwell who sponsored it). No one was bored. At times like that real learning is possible. You can’t capture chemistry like that online, anymore than you can capture the aroma of Starbucks, not yet anyway.

Two More Exceptions to the Dinosaur Rule

I see two other types of in-person education programs that may make it through the next few years of the online revolution. One is academia, and will happen when more law schools get it, and recognize the need to become relevant. Schools can help fill the huge gap in the legal profession’s ability to handle electronic evidence. The other is the intensive multi-day CLE program. This is exemplified by the Georgetown Academy. This is a five-day program with classes all day. Unlike almost all other CLE events, this program can be effective in teaching. It is high quality with great faculty from around the country. I taught there for two years and know from first hand experience that it can work. It has good leadership now and should remain relevant.

But even good multi-day programs like this have their limits. There is only so much you can learn in five days time. It takes time to think these things through, months, maybe even years like in law school. Further, not many people can afford to take a week off to attend. You have travel to Washington D.C. and there are also significant tuition costs. Still, the Georgetown-like multi-day event is a viable alternative for the few who can afford it.

CLEs in the Age of the Internet

Both the week-long intensive training solution and the semester long law school courses are effective. They help, but only a few people. They do not provide the legal profession with the mass solution needed at this critical juncture in history. Still, they are important and should be continued. The networking, dialogue, and conference type events, like the Legal Tech conventions and The Sedona Conference meetings, are also effective. These types of in-person events should also be continued.

All the rest of in-person continuing legal education should be phased out. They should be replaced with creative new forms of online education. This is the only way we can really ramp up our efforts and impact the many, not just a lucky few. We need efforts that can provide life-changing education in e-discovery for tens of thousands of professionals and students around the world. Online education is the only way to do that, both by my blog’s program, and by the many others like it that I predict will quickly follow.

Why Most Old-School In-Person CLEs Must Die

Most in-person CLE events are not like Sedona and LegalTech, they are not like Georgetown. They do not maximize the value of off-line community encounters. They are just big wasters of jet-fuel and gasoline, big wasters of time. They will go the way of the neighborhood video rental store, the way of the newspaper. If the purpose is real learning, not contacts and convention fun, why go to an in-person CLE event? Go online instead.

The off-line CLEs today are a waste of time because they usually offer little more than a couple of hours of lectures, often not very good ones at that. Some of the presenters are very good and know their stuff, or once did; others are just politically connected or, worse yet, they pay to talk. CLEs like that just touch the surface of things, or they are confusing, or scary, or worse, they are darn right boring. Does anybody really learn the law that way? The latest trend in CLEs, panel after panel of experts, is not any better. In fact, it is sometimes even worse, as the experts on the panel are reduced to five-minute sound bytes. I know, I’ve been there many times. Bottom line – real learning is seldom possible in partial, or even full day, A-Z e-disco type coverage CLEs.

I See Dead People

Most of the legal education industry is already dead, they just doesn’t know it yet. The ironic thing is, they will never even read this message to find out they are obsolete because it is not written on paper. The guys in charge, most of them my age or older, don’t read blogs. If one of you dear readers printed this out and handed it to them, most of them would just dismiss it anyway. Too radical they would say. In the ensuing months and years, these same well-meaning executives will be honestly puzzled as fewer and fewer people show up for their old-fashioned events. They will be confused as they slide into bankruptcy. They don’t really get the Internet. Yes, I have seen these people.

Others may understand intellectually the need to move to online education, they may get it on some level. But they still won’t act. I have seen these people too. They fear making a wrong decision. Many of these executives are lawyers and are afflicted by the classic lawyer’s disease – paralysis by analysis. Some of the companies they work for are big and are very slow to change. They do not truly understand how online has already changed everything. They do not understand that they have to act now and act big.

Conclusion

The education organizations that get it, and understand the urgency of the situation, will go online and go soon. They will do so in a big way, not just throw up videos of in-person lectures. Either that or they will go Starbucks and transform their realtime events into conventions and community based gatherings. A few more may follow Georgetown with intensive multi-day events. Maybe a few will do all of these. The in-person events that continue in the FaceBook generation will become more like LegalTech, The Sedona Conference, or Georgetown. The online programs will be more like this blog’s new online training program, more like an online law school program. After a while they will evolve into something completely different. The only constant is change and the real need for education.

Lawyers and other professionals who deal with the challenges of electronic discovery, or who are looking for an opportunities in this field, and there are plenty, will demand this change. They will demand real education. As word gets out, they will study online and go to the social and dialogue oriented conventions. They will not waste their time on traditional CLEs. The only question now is how long this change will take. The new year of 2011 is, I predict, the beginning of the end for most CLE companies today, including especially the big ones. These organizations must change or die. If they are not open to change, they are dead already, they just don’t know it yet.

The race is won by the swift, and by the first to leave the starting block. What are you waiting for? The starting shot has been fired. It is on. Email me now about how you can collaborate and be part of the online legal-ed revolution.

But first, lest you think I’m being a tad too serious this week, check out this video from the BBC on blackberries and other electronic gadgets. The race will wait a few more minutes and this should start you off with  smile. Always a good thing if you’re thinking education.

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