California Bar Journal
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Panel: Improve quality of MCLE
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after former Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the 1998 fee bill, concluded that although many attorneys complain about aspects of the program, it is pointless to consider canning it given recent affirmations of MCLE by the courts and the state legislature.

And despite two unsuccessful court challenges of the program's constitutionality, the commission said, lawyers in general believe mandatory education is a good thing.

"It's simply time to put the issue behind us," said David Heilbron, commission chair and former State Bar president.

Heilbron reported the study's findings last month, noting that of 40 states which have CLE requirements, California's are the lowest.

The nationwide average is 12 to 15 hours annually, and since state legislators last year reduced the number of required hours in California from 36 to 25 - 8.33 per year - attorneys here share roughly the same educational requirements as some pest-control operators. All other professions require more hours - in many cases much more. Accountants complete 40 hours of continuing education annually, barbers take 15 and real-estate brokers clock 11.25 hours.  

"It would be cavalier, if not shocking, were California lawyers excused from the obligation to continue to learn, while all those other California professionals, and most lawyers across the land, are required to discharge it," the 22-page report says.

Of the 601 lawyers who participated in the telephone survey, 60 percent preferred 25 or fewer MCLE hours over three years. The commission, however, decided the number should fall between the current and former requirements at 30 hours.

In a nod to the legislature's reduction, Heilbron said the suggestion is symbolic: The commission will not ask the bar's board of governors to pursue increasing MCLE hours when the report is submitted June 9.

The commission agreed with attorneys' contention that exemptions to MCLE are divisive and should be eliminated, but this acknowledgment is also symbolic since exemptions are legislated, Heilbron said.

In a 1999 California Bar Journal poll, 67 percent of respondents said they believe MCLE should not be mandatory. So the commission was surprised to learn that 51 percent of its respondents described the state's MCLE program as good or excellent.

Complaints about MCLE centered around exemptions to the program and some of its subject requirements, resentment the report largely attributed to attorneys' independent - or stubborn -  nature.  "Nobody likes a program that tells them they have to do anything," Heilbron, said. "In particular, lawyers don't like to be told what to do."

Heilbron said the key to gaining more confidence in the program is to improve the quality of courses, which now "are not deep enough, detailed enough, or at a level high enough."

Respondents generally gave highest marks to live courses, but also noted they are the most costly.

The report suggests creating a central listing on the State Bar's web site that includes the cost of courses and requires providers to include their skill level - beginner, intermediate or advanced.

In revamping subject matter, the commission met bar members halfway by agreeing that the substance abuse and stress reduction requirement should be axed, but decided bias education must stay put.

"It would be just a great mistake to eliminate that requirement now, because although we'd like to think that the bias does not exist, it does," Heilbron said. "We think it would be a very untimely and untoward message to send."

He acknowledged that substance abuse is a substantive issue, but agreed with those polled that MCLE is not the best way to combat the problem. The report recommends substance abuse courses be eliminated as a requirement, but attorneys who choose to can still obtain credit for them.