A legal note from Marshal Willick about how Nevada’s CLE system has been made destructive to both education and scholarship while increasing dramatically in cost, and why only the Nevada Supreme Court – which ultimately is responsible for this mess – can do anything about solving it.
The cost of CLE in Nevada just increased by an order of magnitude while the number and variety of available offerings has been greatly curtailed, and scholarship is being actively punished.
I. WHAT CHANGED AND WHY
The Nevada Board of Continuing Legal Education was created in 1982; it is distinct from – but intertwined with – the Nevada Bar Board of Governors (“BOG”). In 2014, in a “turf” squabble, the CLE Board asked the Supreme Court to reduce the number of CLE Board members appointed by the BOG since the Bar was a “provider” and the CLE Board complained of a conflict of interest.
The CLE Board declared that to do its job, it had to be a “stand-alone” entity that was “financially self-sustaining” so as to “avoid or eliminate conflicts of interest.” It complained that the number of lawyers and fees only “grows slowly” but the Board’s “profitability erodes as operating expenses [primarily its own salaries and benefits] increase over time.” It complained that in 2014, the CLE Board expended $15,000 more than it received from fees, while quietly noting a “reserve” from prior fees received of over $600,000.
So the CLE Board submitted ADKT 499 to change its “business plan” from reliance on annual attorney CLE fees (and late fees), claiming (at the beginning, anyway) its intent to get the “hugely profitable” CLE providers to start funding the cost of mandatory CLE to “reduce or eliminate fees for the lawyers.” It apparently never occurred to the CLE Board to explain why it should seek to be “profitable.”
The new plan was supposed to replace lawyer CLE fees by imposing on “accredited” CLE providers an annual fee of $500 plus $5 for each credit hour earned by every attendee, with another $5 per credit to be paid by each lawyer. For “non-accredited” providers, the new business plan charged a $25 “application fee” per program plus $5 per credit hour per attorney to be paid by the CLE provider, with another $5 per credit to be paid by each lawyer.
Begrudgingly, the fees would not apply to providers “that are non-profit and do not charge attorneys for attending their programs,” or to “Federal, State, and local governmental agencies, nor for legal aid, provided they do not charge attorneys.”
The CLE Board predicted that the change would improve CLE in Nevada because “higher quality providers will accept new fees to continue operating in Nevada, while others will exit the State.” No explanation was suggested as to what denoted “quality” or how that had anything to do with being large for-profit enterprises.
The CLE Board also promised to increase efficiency and economy through use of electronic communications to replace paper, to streamline its processes, and to save staff time by ceasing to “cajole” or “hand-hold” lawyers and instead greatly increase financial penalties imposed against lawyers for non-compliance, predicting that doing so would actually decrease the total of those fees by increasing lawyer compliance.
The Bar opposed the reorganization and parts of the new CLE “business plan,” but agreed to collect the annual CLE fees along with annual Bar dues so that fewer lawyers would be confused and end up having to pay the very expensive “late fee” penalty that constituted 40% of the funding of the CLE Board.
After public comment, a hearing, and several rounds of written input, mainly from the BOG and other bar associations, the Supreme Court approved both the reorganization and the new business plan.
II. THE REAL WORLD AND CONSEQUENCES, INTENDED AND OTHERWISE
Many Nevada lawyers have complained about the CLE “industry” for years, noting that it was already much too expensive, and that for many lawyers it was a totally hollow exercise which generated money for both the Bar and the CLE Board but had no discernable effect on actually improving lawyer competence.
For example, see Legal Notes Vol. 33, “Make Lawyer CLE Meaningful” (Jan. 2011); Vol. 36, “Judicial CLE” (Mar. 2011); Vol. 40, “Other Updates to Prior Notes” (Jun. 2011), and Vol. 54, “Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Cheap & Useful CLE” (Oct. 2012), all posted at https://www.willicklawgroup.com/newsletters/.
Those notes stepped through the history of CLE in Nevada, detailing how it had devolved from the aspiration of promoting lawyer competence into the meaningless extraction of funds to fund the CLE bureaucracy, and how both the Bar and the CLE Board had ignored the obvious reforms that would make it actually useful to the public.
We detailed the huge sums involuntarily extracted from lawyers and being fed to the Bar, to the CLE Board, and to private companies, and protested that since all known studies showed no actual improvement to lawyer competency from mandatory CLE, what Nevada had created was a time-and-money-consuming bureaucracy that falsely portrayed itself as providing a service important to the public, but which actually did not make lawyers better or provide the public any useful information, and so did no actual good.
We explained how my firm was going to try to encourage reform by producing and presenting substantive and specialized CLE at no cost to attendees for the purpose of trying to improve the practice and drive down the fees charged by others.
And we expressed the hope that if that approach was emulated by a sufficient number of others, enough of the profit motive could be taken out of the CLE racket to cause the CLE bureaucracy to focus on actually serving the legitimate interests of lawyers, public, and the courts.
Over the following six years, we produced low-to-no cost CLEs on a wide variety of family law topics, with any money beyond the cost of snacks going to Legal Aid. The “Basics” series (Jurisdiction, Child Custody, Relocation, Property Division, and Practical Mechanics of Family Trial Practice) was acclaimed by those attending, as was the 1-hour Lunch-and-Learn series addressing topics from pension division to the new local rules.
And others did emulate that model – experts throughout the Bar started putting on programs at no cost in their various specialty areas, significantly enhancing the actual education of lawyers in multiple fields.
But this did not generate any money for the CLE bureaucracy, which reacted like a bureaucracy does, seeking its own perpetuation and expansion at the expense of those it purports to serve.
So now, if you want to give away your time, experience, and expertise for the benefit of others, you are required to submit a $25 “application” fee and pay another $5 for every credit that every attendee receives. In other words, for the privilege of volunteering to do all the work to provide a one-hour CLE for 30 people, you have to pay the CLE Board $175. If 100 people happen to show up, it will cost you $525. Lord help you if 1,000 people want to hear what you have to teach.
Who is exempted from paying these fees? The Bar, its sections, and specialty Bars, but only if all proceeds go to legal aid, or to TIP mentors, or the credits offered are 1.5 hours or less. Or if the provider is the government, or a non-profit agency. Otherwise, too bad. The full set of “how we intend to take more money from you” regulations is set out at https://www.nvcleboard.org/formsinformation.asp#.
And this was by no means accidental. The CLE Board, in the debate leading up to adoption of the new regulations, stated in its submissions that it fully intended to cause the “exit of low volume non-accredited providers.” In other words, prevent lawyers from teaching other lawyers for free.
The CLE Board brushed aside the fact that large for-profit providers would obviously pass along to their captive lawyer market the increased fees and costs and that the lawyers would end up paying a lot more every year, saying “Overall, the Board expects no more than a modest effect on provider pricing, as anecdotal input suggests.”
In other words, the CLE Board very deliberately wanted to destroy the ability of lawyers to provide free CLE, because it was not good for the bureaucracy’s income growth, actual damage to the education of members of the Bar be damned. And they knew all along that their new plan would not “reduce fees” to lawyers but would instead greatly increase them, and they didn’t care about that, either.
III. YOU EVEN HAVE TO PAY THEM TO PAY SOMEONE ELSE
The regulations are unclear on the point, but apparently you have to pay the CLE Board if you actually want to obtain specialized education and training in your field.
A divorce lawyer gets the highest-possible quality of education from programs put on by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. But if you go to the 3-day annual CLE in Chicago – paying to travel there, to register, and to stay out of town for three days – you apparently also have to pay the CLE Board $5.00 for every credit you already paid to get.
So the AAML annual meeting, with its 10.5 hours of general and ethics credit, will cost every attendee another $52.50. Every year. On top of the cost of anything earned in Nevada (you have to pay $5 for most credits earned here, too).
The system has been altered so that the more any lawyer seeks out specialized training and education to actually be better, the more expensive it will be. Low-quality, irrelevant, and outdated CLE can be found which is cheap, but of course signing up for such won’t actually make any lawyer any more competent. The incentives are backward.
IV. THE DELIBERATE DISCOURAGEMENT OF SCHOLARSHIP AND PUBLICATION
Every major legal publication in Nevada works hard to attract quality substantive articles – The Nevada Family Law Report, the Nevada Lawyer, the Clark County Communique, the Washoe County Writ, etc.
One of the few tangible benefits for spending the dozens of hours of research, writing, and editing it takes to create such articles has always been the ability to obtain CLE credit for helping to teach other members of the Bar through such publications.
Now, it will also cost you. Regulation 9 of the new CLE rules imposes a $25 fee to get credit for writing scholarly articles – so if you volunteer your time and expertise to help educate the Bar by writing an article for the NFLR or Nevada Lawyer, you have to pay for that, too.
It is hard to imagine a way to more actively discourage lawyers from volunteering their time and expertise to write scholarly articles. And this thought apparently did not even cross the mind of anyone involved in adoption of the new rules – it appears nowhere in the written record of ADKT 499.
V. THE NEW POLICY IS WRONG AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
The “mission statement” of the CLE Board is to ensure that Nevada lawyers “continue their education through a wide range of quality educational programs and to have and maintain the requisite knowledge and skills to fulfill their professional responsibilities.”
But every aspect of the new model discourages providing quality education or scholarship, and decreases what is available to Nevada lawyers who want to actually improve their knowledge and skills. Costs are increased for every lawyer, and the more a lawyer actually cares about getting the best possible education and training, the more it will cost that lawyer.
Every impact of the new plan is directly antithetical to the CLE Board’s supposed reason for existing – but it does feed more money to its bureaucracy. The priorities for those involved in the discussion seem crystal clear.
It is not as if the Supreme Court has not previously been presented with budget impacts related to CLE. In 2016, the Court approved an expansion of CLE from 12 to 13 hours annually, so that every lawyer, every year, had to get a credit related to substance abuse and mental health. We were already the fifth most-expensive-to-remain-in-practice Bar before that change.
Justice Pickering dissented from the addition, noting the minimum $1 million in cost/lost productivity that change would cost, and the entire lack of any empirical evidence that it would actually do any good.
It seems likely that with that new “business plan” being adopted, the CLE Board will make Nevada number one – in cost to remain in practice on zero evidence of any actual benefit to the bench, Bar, or public. Hooray.
VI. RESPONSES BY THE BAR AND SECTION LEADERSHIP HAVE BEEN INADEQUATE
Essentially every entity that participated in the debate over ADKT 499 was solely interested in looking out for its own budget and programs, with scant attention or concern for the lawyers who would end up paying the freight (or their clients, on whom the increased cost of the lawyers remaining in practice ultimately descends). Each entity was focused on trying to secure exemptions from the new fees – for itself.
The State Bar submissions at least claimed to be concerned for the general Bar membership – in addition to the Bar’s own fees and programs, of course – but with all the numbers thrown out during the debate for over two years, no one involved apparently took the time to project what the new policy would actually cost each individual lawyer.
More than anything else, the written submissions looked like Russell Long’s famous summary of input to how tax policy is made in Washington:
Don’t tax you,
Don’t tax me,
Tax that fellow behind the tree.
(William B. Mead, “Congress Tackles the Income Tax” (Money, July, 1973)).
As with the debacle that is e-filing in Clark County, which has been extensively detailed in these notes, it has apparently never occurred to anyone involved that the proper response to increased efficiency, automation, and technology is to lower the cost to the user. If the size of the Bar membership (apparently about 8,000), and the fees that all those members pay, is only growing “incrementally,” then the growth of the bureaucracy’s budget should be likewise constrained to “incremental” increase.
If that is not “adequate,” require the CLE Board to piggy-back on existing State Bar mailings, notices, and staff for functions and communications that can be combined for the purpose of lowering costs.
VII. AN ACTUAL SOLUTION TO THE “PROBLEM”
It is worth circling back to the policy that is supposedly being served by creation of this CLE bureaucracy and the massive money it takes to run it: improving lawyer competence, ultimately for the benefit of the public hiring those lawyers.
The actual “solutions” that would serve that policy goal are simple and cheap, as detailed in Legal Notes 33 and 54 seven years ago: If you want to ensure that lawyers are actually learning something at CLE, require providers to test them on the subject matter of the course. If you want the public to hire the best trained and most educated lawyers, have the Bar publicly post the CLE record of all lawyers so that the public can see the currency and validity of attorneys’ continuing education.
What is not helpful to either lawyers or the public is to fund an ever-better-paid CLE bureaucracy primarily fixated on its own perpetuation and growth.
By my estimate, the cost of CLE in Nevada just (at least) doubled, while the number and variety of available offerings has been drastically reduced. Half a dozen companies have pulled out of Nevada entirely, and free CLE offered by law firms has essentially disappeared. Our CLE Board is actively discouraging anyone from wanting to provide either education to others, or scholarship and authorship. The new policy is counterproductive in virtually every imaginable way.
Only the Nevada Supreme Court can do anything about this. The CLE Board will never do anything to reduce its own budget and growth, and neither will the Bar. Both of those entities report to the Court, which should start with figuring out what end results it is trying to produce, and then target policies and directives to actually achieve them.
Given the enormous costs in both time and money, it may be time to re-evaluate the value of the entire system. Getting empirical evidence as to whether mandatory CLE actually does any good would seem to be a good first step.
At bare minimum, policies that discourage volunteering and scholarship should be reversed. There should be no fee of any kind for providing CLE without charging for it, and there should be no fee of any kind for seeking credit for scholarly articles and publications. It would be a good idea to have some kind of sliding scale beyond that, so that folks that have a modest charge to attendees (for example, to finance lunch or renting space) are not punished for providing a public service.
Overall, the concept is that the CLE Board should be focused on facilitating the actual providing of useful information and training to members of the Bar at the lowest possible cost, rather than maximizing revenues to perpetuate its own bureaucracy.
The CLE Board long ago lost all sight of the purpose of CLE, and the bureaucracy spawned is now solely concerned with its own perpetuation, expansion, and increase in budget. As currently constituted, the Nevada mandatory CLE system does nothing measurable to improve the competence of lawyers or judges, and the Bar does nothing to let the public get any potentially useful information from or about it. CLE is now about nothing but funding.
There is no defensible rationale for what has metastasized into the current hot mess. The State Bar, on behalf of the general membership, should ask the Court to assess the efficacy and impacts of mandatory CLE, and the Court, on behalf of the lawyers and the public, should do so.
IX. QUOTES OF THE ISSUE
“In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control, and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”
– Jerry Pournelle (Pournelle’s Law of Bureaucracy)
“Bureaucracies force us to practice nonsense. And if you rehearse nonsense, you may one day find yourself the victim of it.”
– Laurence Gonzales, Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things
“Bureaucracies are inherently antidemocratic. Bureaucrats derive their power from their position in the structure, not from their relations with the people they are supposed to serve. The people are not masters of the bureaucracy, but its clients.”
– Alan Keyes
“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”
– Thomas Sowell
For some of the CLE materials and articles produced by the Willick Law Group, go to https://willicklawgroup.com/cle-materials/ and https://willicklawgroup.com/published-works/. For the archives of previous legal notes, go to https://www.willicklawgroup.com/newsletters.
If there are any problems with or suggestions for these newsletters, please feel free to email back to me. Thanks.