What’s wrong with compulsory CLE?

It’s the time of year when I have cleared my desk enough to think about whether I have met my Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirements.

I’d like to be having a holiday: it’s been a very long year and I’ve achieved quite a bit professionally – worked hard, done new things and learnt new information, worked with senior colleagues, had successful judgments issued from the courts, had good feedback from other lawyers, judges and clients, managed my practice well, introduced some new systems, managed some stressful issues and did okay. Much of that took research and study: learning all the way.

Really, the only issue for me right now is that I need a break. But I’ve been so busy I haven’t done my CPD points so I need to do 10 hours before the end of March and as the next couple of months will be busy I have no option but to do them in my holiday. That’s a great shame as I really need a holiday.

I would not satisfy the “how to manage your stress” and “your time” papers: they say you need to have breaks, holidays, not be stressed, find time to relax.

But so be it: the rules say I need to do the 10 hours. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I need upskilling in any particular area, nor indeed whether I actually learn anything from the seminars that are provided. Just that I pay the fee, complete the hours and answer a few questions to prove I listened (although my answers don’t count so no one really notices if I sleep though the seminar). So, do we all really need to put ourselves through the ennui of compulsory CLE? Does it work?

What does it achieve and why are we doing it?

The Law Society says that “CPD (not CLE) can help lawyers become better legal professionals”. Which lawyers? Certainly nobody would claim that CLE identifies (or even improves) the under-performing lawyer. The requirement to complete 10 hours CPD has no benefit in terms of identifying the bad lawyer. It’s possible that if we all have to do 10 hours then the bad lawyers get swept up and some of that “bad lawyer” group might suddenly become good lawyers. But I haven’t seen any evidence to show that will happen. Nor does there seem to be any process by which such a thing is or could be measured.

So we are left with a requirement to do 10 CLE hours because the Law Society thinks it’s good for all of us. Is that it? And it’s compulsory because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t do it. Or is it just that 10 hours of compulsory CLE is something that can be counted? And if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count?

Employers see compulsory CLE as a way to keep staff up to date and to improve quality. Regulators believe the purpose of CLE is to maintain competence and improve quality. There is scant evidence for either. Many practising lawyers see CLE simply as a means to attain credits for registration .


Let me acknowledge at the outset the value of appropriately focused continuing professional development (CPD). Lifelong learning is vitally important. Remaining technically competent, up to date, ethical, and engaged with colleagues lies at the heart of professionalism.

And I think the vast majority of the profession want to stay competent and current and do that as a matter of good professional practice.

My question is whether having a compulsory requirement is necessary or achieves anything.

Educational concepts

Children are compelled to go to school by parents, teachers and society. Compulsion is based on educational theory derived from children’s learning (pedagogy).

The Law Society’s CLE requirement is compulsory. That is schoolish and pedagogical.

Of course the Law Society does show some flexibility but the compulsion remains.

How then, do adults learn?

The principles of androgogy (adult learning) are these:

  1. Adults want and need to be involved in how their training is planned, delivered, and executed. They want to control what, when, and how they learn.
  2. Adults can draw on what they already know to add context to their learning.
  3. Memorising facts and information is not how adults learn. They need to solve problems and use reasoning to absorb information effectively.
  4. What adults are learning needs to be applicable to their lives and be implemented as soon as possible. Adult learning is real life learning: self-directed and problem-based.

So why are there 10 compulsory hours of CLE?

What are we trying to achieve?

Do highly motivated, competent professionals really need the burden of a compulsory compliance framework of CLE credits to perform well?

On the face of it the current regime achieves little except satisfying a public perception that “something is being done” to keep lawyers competent (it isn’t) and the Law Society perception that counting credits usefully objectifies the process (it doesn’t).

And there is a downside,

  • CLE requirements are a tick box exercise that wastes competent professionals’ time;
  • Cost is passed to the client, but does not actually provide assurance that the client might reasonably expect.

Legal education experts should …

Acknowledge that CLE does nothing to catch the poor performer – we need to do something else and something better.

Find a way to recognise good practitioners who are continually updating and checking their currency on issues. Most lawyers, especially those involved in litigation, are constantly subjected to rigorous peer review by colleagues and judges. They don’t need to go back to school.

Change the spin: the Law Society CPD Rules acknowledge the importance of adult learning principles but persist in compelling lawyers to record 10 formal hours: but compulsion should have no place in adult learning. The compulsion drives lawyers to go back to school and take the easy option of seminars and webinars to get their points.

Design a process that is really flexible enough to recognise that competent adults learn best when they are directing their own learning and solving work problems, without compulsion

Originally published in the Law Society’s March Issue of LawTalk. You can see this article and the rest if the Issue here