CLEs, Continuing Legal Education classes, are both a bane and a boon to lawyers, for the same reason—you’re out of the office. Maybe you’ll learn something you want to know, maybe it’s mandatory, but in any event, you’re out of the office.
It’s a bane—you have to check in, probably, to see if anything’s on fire. And if it is, then you have to go back, or deal with it on breaks, or hustle back to the office. It can be a test of how important or organized you are.
But it’s a boon, too. Because you’re out of your office. You don’t have to answer placeholding inquiries from clients and other callers just trying to go down their list. You don’t have to work on another endless report—it will still be there to work on while you’re gone. And in some states, there’s a test at the end—so you actually have to pay some attention, which makes your office less inclined to interrupt you.
There are non-legal things that you learn, or prior learning’s reinforced, about being a lawyer and practicing law at these things.
You can always tell the younger lawyers, the ones who are brand new to practice—they’re still wearing suits, or business casual. Maybe they had to go into the office, first, to assure the partner they work for that yes, they were using the firm’s money to spend six hours away from bill, bill, bill. Or maybe they still think that other lawyers give a flip what you look like at these things, aside from having taken a shower and brushed your teeth. It’s not uncommon for younger lawyers to treat these things as a slightly high-brow hook up scene. The older lawyers? We’re in jeans, baggy sweaters, or sweatshirts—whatever our default, weekend non-office casual means. A day out of high heels and pantyhose, or trousers snugged tight with a belt and something other than clogs—what a boon.
Practicing law is a lot like high school, especially at CLE gatherings. You run into people you don’t really like, but you have to deal with. You learn to be friendly, or at least polite and somewhat interested in how they’re doing. It’s networking, but it’s also re-establishing the grounds of civility. And the topics of conversation? It doesn’t really matter. Lawyers talk—they get paid to. We can find something to talk about if it’s in our professional interest—even if it’s just a muttered grumble to your neighbor at the back of the room at how boring the class is, or how inaudible the old coot of an instructor is. It usually ends in your exchanging business cards afterward—and then back in your car, when it’s over, you write down where you met them, what they look like, what they do for a living. Not that you’ll call them for lunch—but if your client needs someone who does what they do, then even that tenuous connection is enough to get you in their door sometimes. It’s quid pro quo at the clearest, most transparent level—but we all agree that’s what it is, so there’s no taking it personally when the interest is opportunistic.
That’s not to say lawyers aren’t also friends. They are, and at CLEs you’ll see cliques of lawyers who know each other whose group you’ll only grudgingly penetrate if you’re an outsider—unless, of course, just like high school, you have something they need. But for the most part, it’s a polite ‘hail-fellow-well-met” kind of polite joviality. A few of my best friends are lawyers. But not most. We tend to slip too easily into “law-talkin’ stuff,” as some non-lawyer friends are likely to have it. My friends who are lawyers have lives outside of work—we commiserate briefly in front of our spouses, but leave the professional consultations and concerned inquiries for work hours, mostly—work is still work, even if it’s a pleasure to discuss it with someone who not only understands in a general sense, but wishes you well.
CLEs are like high school in another way—there’s always a certain amount of note-writing, note-passing, and attention on things other than what’s being taught at the front of the room. Some of it’s boredom, some of it’s billing, and some of it is sheer workaholism, billing needs aside. Most lawyers, litigators at least, always bring other work. You can’t imagine how much time you waste at court waiting around for your case to be called. When you’ve been doing it more than two years, you could care less about the proceedings in front of you—you have discovery to draft, letters to write, records to review. Not in court, but at CLEs, where you can hide these things under the tables, and the seating’s so jam-packed that it’s impossible for the folks at the front of the room to possibly tell– everyone’s checking their phones and blackberries, or using their laptops to type up letters or use the wi-fi. Just about the only things they’re not doing is making calls or dictating right in the room. Even attorneys have some sense of decorum. (Try not to be shocked.)
We might be billing while we’re pretending to listen, but at least we pretend—we don’t whisper while the teacher’s talking, and we only pass notes to ourselves, in the form of post-its on top of documents, letters, and drafts to be dealt with by us or our assistant (if we’re so lucky to have one) when we get back to the office. (Unless, like the guy sitting in front of me as I type this, you bring a huge stack of medical records, when the seminar binder is only one inch thick. Yeah, buddy. Real subtle.)
CLEs are also like law school. You can get up, come and go to the bathroom or the coffee machine. It’s on your head, and in your discretion, if you miss something while you’re gone from the room. And there’s food. At least hot caffeine and water—at the better places, soda and continental breakfast. At the best places, chicken and tuna sandwiches, pasta salad, supermarket bakery brownies. Lawyers may pretend to be gourmets, and hell, some of them are, but free food is free food, and it’s not a free lunch, not really. If you’re stuck in a conference room on a rainy Friday for six hours listening to some dinosaur ramble on about corporate forms when you’re a litigator, just because it’s required? The brownies help. The diet coke, too.
And the diet coke? Well, the lawyers reading this site know that’s a whole ‘nother story. You want to learn how to reduce a lawyer to tears? Hide the aspartame-sweetened caffeine. That’s an education all in itself.