'Skill enhancement': the difference between plumbers and lawyers

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Published on 10/23/06

Quite some time ago, I saw a statistic showing that plumbers get more training than lawyers do. They purportedly must receive 40 hours per year in order to keep their licenses.

Training related to job skill is, in fact, considered essential throughout the "real world" economy. For example, the National Association of Manufacturers recommends to its members that they dedicate 3 percent of their annual revenue to educating their employees.

By contrast, lawyers practicing in states with mandatory CLE generally are required to have approximately 25 hours in three years, or eight-plus hours per year. Certified public accountants in California are required to take 12 hours. And doctors are required to take 25 hours per year.

If lawyers adhered to the NAM standard and devoted 3 percent of their revenue (defined as billable hours) to training, it would equal 45 hours in a year with a relatively modest 1,500 hours billed.

Even so, some lawyers complain about being compelled to take continuing education programs. Not the good lawyers, of course. They take the programs; they teach the programs. But what seems to be the sticking point for many lawyers is the mandatory aspect.

In 1991, I testified against creating mandatory Continuing Legal Education programs in California on the grounds that good lawyers already spend a lot of their time in furthering their education, that inept lawyers will attend but not learn, and that sole practitioners and small-firm practitioners will have a disproportionate share of their income allocated to a new expense that could not be passed on to the consumer.

I lost the argument, but time has proven me right. What I did not anticipate, however, is that certain individuals (and even bar associations) would make tons of money from the education process.

For example, one attorney I know changed his entire career to create a seminar company and made more money than he did as a lawyer. One bar association went from nearly bankrupt to having more than $1 million cash in the bank over a 10-year period! These are not isolated numbers.

The ironic aspect of mandating legal training is that the practical skills that lawyers most need to keep their practices profitable and problem-free - training in effective client service and law practice management techniques - either are not covered or actively eliminated as legitimate MCLE credits.

They also happen to be skills that no law school faculty would dare touch, lest they be considered "trade school" instructors. Just try to get law schools to include management programs in their curricula. You haven't seen a strong lobby until you attempt this.

The bottom line is whatever makes you a better lawyer benefits both you and your clients, whether it falls under an MCLE banner or not.

There's absolutely no reason why a lawyer shouldn't take the same professional approach to skill enhancement that a plumber or machine tool operator does.

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