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State Bar CLEs: A Rant

By Ruth Carter

Let me start by saying I don’t have a problem with mandatory bar associations. I also don’t see an issue with state bars offering CLEs. My problem is when state bars suck money out of members for annual dues while providing little in return, or charge an offensive amount of money for CLEs that do little to enhance the practice of law.

Oversight Is Necessary — Excessive Bar Dues Are Not

I paid $505 for my annual bar dues in January. That means I pay $1.38/day for the privilege of practicing law in my state. Are my bar dues so high they come with extraordinary benefits and discounts compared to other states? Not that I can tell.

My bar may respond that the purpose of dues isn’t for my benefit since their purpose is to “serve and protect the public with respect to the provision of legal services and access to justice.” How much does a state bar need to accomplish this goal? I’ve been reading the meeting minutes published in my state bar magazine. My state bar has a $7.2 million cash surplus.

I do not dispute that the legal profession needs oversight, but a state bar should not be using its members as a cash cow.

CLEs Should Make You a Better Lawyer

This may be naive of me, and it may be because I’m still relatively new to the profession with only 10 years of experience, but shouldn’t the purpose of continuing legal education be to make us better lawyers?

Most lawyers have to do 12 to 15 hours per year of CLE. But more and more it appears that CLEs exist to let you check the box without actually learning anything. If I have to spend 15 hours of my life listening to someone speak, I want to be a better person for it.

If a state bar is taking in more dues than it knows what to do with, it should be offering the highest quality CLEs, preferably for free, and pays its speakers. Otherwise, what you end up with is what I’m seeing at CLEs across the board — panels of poorly prepared speakers who are obviously winging it.

When you look at your state bar’s CLEs, ask yourself if the organizers are focused on making you a better lawyer. Or are they half-assing it to put together a group of presenters who will half-ass their job in exchange for the CLE credit they get as speakers?

Let me take care of the obvious questions in the room:

  1. Yes, there are crap private companies that offer crap CLEs. As private organizations, they are allowed to do that. If a state bar offers CLEs, they should reflect the gold standard of what CLEs should be.
  2. Yes, there will always be people who don’t care if they learn anything at their CLEs. A state bar that provides CLEs shouldn’t have a goal of being easily tuned out so the attendee can simultaneously do client work or dick around on social media.

“We Don’t Have the Budget”

If an organization is charging for its CLEs, it should be paying its speakers. Period. If they’re making money, so should you.

If they claim they don’t have the budget to pay you, don’t be afraid to look more closely at their actual costs. If it’s a large-scale conference with all the bells and whistles, they may only be able to comp your registration. But if we’re talking about a simple CLE given at their facility, particularly if the state bar owns it, there’s no reason they can’t give you a little something. If it’s a webinar event, there’s really no reason.

And if anyone has the audacity to say you’re being compensated with exposure, please respond with, “People die of exposure.”

My state bar recently reported that they took in ~ $350,000 more than they budgeted for from its CLEs last year. $350,000 extra? Are you kidding me? With that kind of surplus, they should be bringing in the best legal speakers in the country and at no cost to its members as a thank you — or at least discounting our bar dues for a year.

Don’t Feed the System

One thing we can all do is vote with our feet. If a state bar appears to be using its CLE speakers for its own benefit, and they invite you to be a presenter, decline the opportunity and tell them why. There are other CLE providers who will pay you for presenting.

If a CLE sucks, I know you won’t walk out because you paid for it, but don’t be shy about saying you didn’t get your money’s worth. Seek out other CLE providers who help you be a better practitioner.

If your state bar doesn’t require your CLEs to come from pre-approved providers, do it yourself. In Arizona, it’s easy to meet the requirements for a live in-person or web-based CLE. I’ve seriously considered teaming up with other lawyers who are tired of paying for bad CLEs and organizing our own programs, delivered over Zoom, where the presenters are specifically selected because they are not boring and they can present the material using stories — not death by PowerPoint.

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Also on Attorney at Work:

“Workaholic Lawyer: Is This Lifestyle Sustainable?” by Ruth Carter

“Mindfulness Matters” Five Ways to Focus on the Now” by Jamie Spannhake

“Attorney Burnout: 4 Traps to Avoid” by Gray Robinson”

“Office Dogs Improve Law Office Morale” by Ruth Carter

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Ruth Carter Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter — lawyer, writer and professional speaker — is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing on intellectual property, business, internet and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” Ruth blogs at and

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