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The future of lawyer competence: Self-directed, AI-generated, customized CPD
Continuing legal education is on its last legs. Self-directed professional development will replace it. And generative AI will be the weapon of choice.
Illustration by Midjourney
The Supreme Court of Georgia’s Lawyer Competency Task Force came this close in March to breaking the legal profession’s longest-standing addiction. But at the last minute it flinched, and the monkey remains on our backs. At the tail end of a lengthy report on licensing and competence reform, the Task Force turned its attention to CLE, mandatory in Georgia and 43 other states, and said:
Prevailing wisdom in the legal profession is that CLE makes lawyers better, and for that reason, mandatory CLE must surely make all lawyers better. But even after four decades of mandatory CLE, there is no scientific study or empirical evidence to support this prevailing wisdom….
I could have saved the State Supreme Court some money, because almost exactly ten years ago, I reached the same conclusion in a blog post at Law21. But whereas I recommended an end to mandatory CLE, the Task Force couldn’t quit cold turkey, suggesting instead that MCLE be restricted to ethics programming and otherwise scaled back. Chief among its reasons for compromise was that:
the elimination of mandatory CLE likely would be perceived by the profession—and perhaps, but less likely, by the public too—as a drastic change, one that runs up against the conventional wisdom in the profession and makes Georgia an outlier nationally.
Well, Lord knows we wouldn’t want to challenge conventional wisdom or stand out from the crowd. We are lawyers, after all.
Look, the cold reality is that MCLE is the emptiest of gestures towards ongoing lawyer competence, and pretty much everyone in the profession knows it. But I’ll go further: We don’t even have hard evidence linking everyday, non-mandatory CLE with better, more proficient lawyers. Continuing legal education is the multi-million-dollar price we charge ourselves to pretend we’re taking our competence seriously as a profession. It’s halfway between a bad habit and a myth, and about as helpful as both.
Now, CLE is not the same thing as CPD (Continuing Professional Development). Almost everywhere it’s mandated, CLE takes the form of hour-long lectures by panels of lawyers, invariably updating an area of substantive law, with reams of background materials that used to collect dust on shelves and now shed microns in unused thumb drives. There’s no requirement that your CLE be related to your practice, or that you learn anything, or that you even listen to what’s being said; all that matters is that you spent ten or more hours a year doing it. The whole thing is, to use a technical term, a crock.
CPD is what we’re actually supposed to be doing after we get our law licenses: maintaining and improving our competence as lawyers. Many states and provinces pull a bait-and-switch here by calling their requirements “MCPD” and expanding the range of activities to include workshops, discussions, even reading and writing — but they still set a minimum number of hours of these activities, and most lawyers continue to attend CLE sessions anyway and tick that box off their annual regulatory filing.
Only one jurisdiction in
North America Canada does not require lawyers to complete a minimum number of CLE/CPD hours, and it’s the only jurisdiction that I think gets ongoing lawyer competence right: Alberta.
I’m probably a little biased here, because the Law Society of Alberta hired me in 2020 to help it decide whether to abandon its holdout position and join everyone else in the minimum-hours camp. Every competence expert I spoke with agreed with my assessment: Hell, no. I’ll let you read the report, or my brief summary of it, to learn my reasons, but they amount to: Adult professionals don’t get better at what they do by sitting through lectures for ten hours a year. They get better by:
Assessing their overall competence to practise law;
Identifying areas where they’re either deficient and want to improve or are good and want to become great;
Choosing a series of activities they think will help them reach that goal;
Carrying out those activities; and
Going back to Step 1 at the start of the next year.
This is what Alberta was already doing; I recommended they keep doing it while installing some upgrades: creating a professional development profile to assist with Step 1, developing a self-assessment guide to help with Step 2, and establishing a range of activity options for Step 3. The Law Society has already done the first (see their terrific Professional Development Profile guide and the nifty “Competence Compass” below), and they’re working on 2 and 3 as we speak.
I think everyone should follow Alberta’s lead and replace hours-based mandatory CLE with equally mandatory but self-directed continuing professional development programs. I also think The Simpsons should just give it up already and let us treasure our fading memories of Seasons 3 through 7. But neither of my dreams has seemed likely to come true, largely for the same two reasons: money and inertia.
A lot of legal organizations (including state and local bars and law societies) collect a hefty amount of annual operating revenue from CLE programming that these same organizations require or strongly encourage lawyers to consume, a conflict of interest that’s never seemed to bother them. And lawyers are creatures of extreme habit who keep complaining about CLE requirements but have fully absorbed the “conventional wisdom” that so enthralled the Georgia Task Force and have settled into the comfortable rut of low-value lectures.
But there’s a third reason why self-directed CPD hasn’t really caught on in the legal profession, and that’s the one where real change is about to happen: It’s very difficult to design a program that can advance your own unique professional development.
The great majority of CLE offerings are general-purpose and mass-produced, designed to appeal to as many paying customers as can fit inside a room or into a Zoom call. Lawyers scan the long list of courses in search of one or two that might touch in some way on their particular practice at this particular stage of their careers. What they won’t find is an offering custom-designed for their unique situation, because CLE providers don’t do customization; they do mass broadcasts, and you’ll have to pick through their programming to find anything with a relevant angle.
But you know who does offer full-scale customized programming designed for and by unique individuals? Large Language Models.
Right now, you can use ChatGPT-4’s free Bing-based offering to develop an interactive course that brings you up to speed in most areas of the law while also assessing your law-practice and client-relationship skills.
You can ask GPT-4 to:
Summarize the state of the law in the area where you want to become more competent.
Highlight the most recent and important legislative, regulatory, and caselaw developments in this area.
Identify best practices for lawyers to accomplish a set of client requests in this area of the law.
Develop and administer a quiz that will test you on your knowledge of the information it has supplied you.
Role-play as a client who wishes to hire you to carry out tasks in this area.
Assess not just the information you provided the client but also the ways in which you interacted with them.
Provide a summary cheat-sheet of the ten most important things for a lawyer who practices in this area to know and do.
I did all this in a series of exchanges with Bing Chat yesterday. It took me about an hour and cost me exactly $0. How much would you have to pay a CLE provider to custom-design a course like that for you? How long would it take them?
Generative AI allows lawyers, for the first time, to custom-design their own CPD programming. You can build a CPD session meant for you and you alone. You can repeat it as often as you like, tweaking the features as you go, improving your performance each time — upgrading your competence, which last I checked was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise.
Try this out for yourself. Go use Bing Chat in Creative Mode and ask it to build you a learning session about any area of the law or practice that interests you. It’ll take a few tries to get it right, but it’s worth the effort. If you need to get up to speed on prompting and interacting with GPT-4, consult Ethan Mollick’s excellent general-purpose GPT-4 columns or Josh Kubicki’s equally excellent law-specific articles. Play with this extraordinary device and see how it can help you become a better legal professional.
Because once you’ve done that a few times, you’ll never look at general-purpose, mass-produced CLE programming the same way. And when enough lawyers have done this, maybe then the profession will finally shake off the “conventional wisdom” that CLE is good and MCLE is better. Generative AI is the future of self-directed continuing lawyer competence, and its arrival is not one moment too soon.
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