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Commentary: Is teaching CLEs worth the time?

By: BridgeTower Media Newswires , SYBIL DUNLOP//February 27, 2017

Commentary: Is teaching CLEs worth the time?

By: BridgeTower Media Newswires , SYBIL DUNLOP//February 27, 2017//

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I’m teaching a lot of CLEs these days. Like one-or-two-a-month a lot. Topic-wise, my CLE portfolio is diverse. I’ve taught courses on arbitration, federal practice, legal writing, and implicit bias, among others. I enjoy teaching, but the massive time commitment does make me wonder — is the return on a CLE worth the investment?

It’s great marketing, right?

Conventional wisdom holds that teaching a CLE (while generally unpaid) remunerates attorney-presenters with marketing exposure. When I teach a CLE, folks in our legal community learn about my practice and expertise and will (I hope) think of me the next time that they have a case in my strike zone.

The problem, of course, is that this is a long game whose results are almost impossible to measure. To date, no one has referred me a case saying, “I saw you at a CLE, and you’re the lawyer I want for this dispute.”

That’s not to say that CLEs don’t generate meaningful connections. I have received lovely calls as a result of teaching CLEs. I’ve been asked to dine. I’ve been invited to present to different audiences. And I’ve received warm notes thanking me for presenting.

And these connections may reap marketing benefits yet. I have learned, for example, that name-recognition within a community is never a bad thing. Before attending law school, I worked in politics. And there’s an adage in politics that voters have to hear a candidate’s name at least seven times before they remember it (hence the prevalence of radio ads, bumper stickers, yard signs, mailings, and door hangers). Legal marketing can’t be so very different. Folks likely need to hear a name a few times before they will even consider making a referral or reaching out. And perhaps a CLE beat ensures that when my name comes up, people will think it sounds comfortably familiar. The problem, however, is that I don’t know how to quantify this measurement so that I can compare it to the time commitment and reasonably assess costs and benefit.

It’s making me a better lawyer

But while I can’t measure marketing value, I do know that teaching CLEs is making me a better lawyer.

This past year, I’ve prepared substantive CLEs on topics including class action law, the ethics of juror selection, the new discovery rules, and a Supreme Court term preview. In preparing for each of these presentations, I’ve gone to the mattresses — relearning material that I had forgotten and ensuring that I am up-to-date with changes in the law. These preparations have helped me avoid missteps and serve as a resource to my colleagues regarding new legal developments. I know, for example, what the new discovery rules demand (and can also wield that information against opponents who may have missed the rule changes).

But even beyond ensuring that I stay abreast of substantive developments, my CLE docket helps me hone my oral presentation skills. I’ve always been an enthusiastic presenter, but my past training as a college debater encouraged my (already natural) tendency to talk too fast. I learned this lesson while presenting a CLE with a sign-language interpreter. After the talk, several audience members approached to let me know that the interpreter looked like she was about to collapse from exhaustion during my whirlwind discussion of the Eleventh Amendment. Oops. Lesson learned. These days I put real effort into ensuring that my presentations do not occur at warp speed, but leave time for folks to take notes, ask questions, and process the information.

Having now presented the same CLEs on multiple occasions, I also relish the opportunity to improve each presentation over the last one. Our profession frequently affords us one bite at each oral-argument apple. You only get one shot to present your summary judgment or motion to dismiss argument. With a CLE, I can improve the presentation over time. If I didn’t like my explanation or I uncover a better example, I can redraft my PowerPoint slide and make it better the second time around. An audience also means that I can judge (mostly by the number of screens being consulted) whether I’m holding the audience’s attention or boring folks. Since my number one rule of CLE presentations is “don’t be boring,” I always take advantage of the opportunity to revamp sections of my presentation that appear to be encouraging folks to check their email.

But mostly, I enjoy it

Many of us chose to attend law school because we enjoy public debate. I did. And while I am incredibly fulfilled with my legal practice, I particularly cherish opportunities to present in front of a crowd. I love the energy generated from interacting with an engaged audience. I enjoy employing all the tools of presentation (humor, examples, and research results) to share knowledge. And I delight in aiming to craft an entertaining performance.

This year, my CLE portfolio also represents a personal mission. I spent last year thinking a lot about how to change our profession so that it reflects and includes more folks within our community. To this end, I developed a presentation on Implicit Bias and Its Impact on the Legal Profession. And my New Year’s resolution is to take my show on the road and share the latest research on implicit bias (and how our profession can help dampen its impact) with anyone who asks (and it turns out lots of folks will take you up on your offer when it includes an elimination-of-bias CLE credit).

To me, this is the most important thing that a CLE offers. A CLE affords all of us an opportunity to share our wisdom with others in our profession, so that we can all improve. Some of us have expertise in advising the disadvantaged or drafting and using letters of intent. Others know about examining title or bankruptcy. CLEs facilitate a conversation within our profession about how to do our work and changes that can be made to improve it. So though it may never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I am happy to participate in the process. CLEs are worth it.

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