Continuing Legal Education: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Back in April or so, I started thinking about the CLE hours I needed to take in 2010 which are required for continued licensure each year. I also have a couple of board certifications (CHC, FACHE) that require continuing education. One of those requires 40 hours every two years, so I decided to go ahead and look around for seminars to help me reach that number.

I’m not currently practicing, but thinking about which CLE courses I wanted to take got me thinking about the kind of legal work I might be inspired to do again. There’s a kind of practice that’s absolutely meaningless and nothing more than generating billable hours for a law firm and there’s a kind that makes you feel good that you’re able to help someone and it’s done for the right reasons. That’s what I’m thinking anyway. So the seminars I chose were along those lines. After attending 5 courses over the past few months, I wanted to share some observations about good, bad and ugly.

The first course was Guardian Ad Litem training in Montgomery. Guardian Ad Litems are attorneys appointed by the court in matters involving minors and incompetents. With my background in healthcare law and having worked for 5 years for a company specializing in care for troubled and special needs patients, I’d have an interest in the possibility of serving as a guardian ad litem in cases involving healthcare issues, such as where someone is facing an involuntary commitment to a psychiatric institution or where a minor with special healthcare needs resides in a long term care facility. With my prior experience, this is something I think I’d be good at, and it would get my feet wet in courtroom representation. So this seminar is where the phrase, the good, the bad and the ugly came into mind. The good thing was that it was indeed inspiring. The speakers told compelling stories of cases they’ve been involved in and left no doubt that there’s an opportunity to do some good. I also had the opportunity to sit next to someone about my age, maybe a little younger, who represents nursing home patients in malpractice and abuse cases. We had alot to talk about, and he was a really nice guy. He attended and paid attention the entire time too, which I only point out because it brings me to my next observation.

The bad. The guy on the other side of me disgusted me and mad me ashamed of the profession. He sat texting on his phone the whole time he was there and paid absolutely no attention to the speakers. I couldn’t help but see a sheet of paper in front of him where he’d already billed out 4 hours by 9am in .25, .50 and other increments to various clients. He got up in the middle of one of the first speakers and went to the back of the room to talk on his phone, not quietly either. It was extremely rude. But hey this guy must have been really important, or at least he thought so, so I guess that made it ok. Guy was wearing some fancy pinstripe shorts, penny loafers with no socks, and some preppy izod shirt. I’m sure you know the type. Completely full of himself… a real snob. He left at lunch time and didn’t come back until 30 minutes before the end of the day to pick up his stuff. But I’m sure he claimed his full credit for the course though, because hey his time is valuable, and he did show up after all. Disgusting. And then there was the ugly…. the guy in front of me with a big lip full of dip spitting into a plastic bottle most of the day. Wearing a suit and tie at that!! Oh well…. I realize I was in Montgomery.

The next seminar I went to was in Atlanta on issues involving Veterans. I thought it might be inspiring to get involved in helping disabled veterans or issues involving VA hospitals. What I discovered right away was that the VA is a huge bureaucracy buried in mountains of endless paperwork and rules. After having already spent 15 years with my nose buried in countless reams of regulatory material involving the Health Care Financing Administration, now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Department of Health and Human Services, I knew I’d better leave the VA stuff alone. No need to go down that road again. I can stomach new CMS regulations because they’re just an incremental addition to a body of law I’m already very familiar with, but to learn a new body of bureaucratic laws… no way I’d want to even try. There are people who do this stuff well, and it’s best left to them.

The next seminar was in Montgomery and was on Medical Malpractice. This one got me excited because I think I’d get a kick out of switching sides. But it’s obvious that not many other attorneys feel the same way. I’ve heard this is one of the riskiest types of legal practice from a financial perspective, costing anywhere from $20,000 to $150,000 to try, and that only a very small percentage of cases that go to trial are decided in favor of the plaintiff (I seem to recall someone saying around 5%). You can see from the picture, only 4 students showed up. One didn’t speak to anyone and left after a couple of hours, one worked for a defense firm, one was a professor at AU, and then there was me, the guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing but kept getting excited thinking about suing a corrupt executives more concerned about bonus calculations than proper staffing levels. Only one problem (beside the cost issue) is my minimal civil procedure experience… I’d need the help of an experienced litigator, and I guess that is a possibility. It’s something I’m going to keep thinking about. I like the idea of helping to achieve some sort of justice for someone who’s been abused.

The fourth conference was Advanced Health Law in Atlanta. This one had the best food 🙂 And I was a little surprised at how easily I followed everything presented, even though it was billed as advanced. I guess it helped that I’ve read hundreds of developing news and other articles over the past two years on healthcare reform issues. Why have I continued reading all that stuff even though I initially swore off law practice a couple of years ago? I’m not sure. I guess I felt like I understood what the problems are and was interested to see how they’ll be addressed. I think I also realize my problem is not with the area of law, it’s with the corporate blue blood law firm industry. No thanks. But I have warmed to the idea of doing some part time work for a few respectable providers who are trying to do the right thing, and perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad using Alternative Fee Arrangements to the billable hour. It’s something I’m thinking about.

The fifth conference was also in Atlanta (I did not like getting up at 4am to make it to Atlanta on time!!!), and was titled “The Overlap of Legal and Medical Ethics: Issues in End-of-Life Decision Making.” It was presented by Emory University’s Law School, Center for Ethics, School of Medicine, School of Nursing, School of Theology, School of Public Health and Business School. This seminar was also really interesting because one of the panels (see pic) featured the trial judge, Guardian Ad Litem, and an appellate lawyer in the Terri Schiavo case, which spanned 7 years. It was filled with helpful discussion for attorneys who help clients with Advanced Directives, Durable Powers of Attorney for Health Care and Living Wills, and for the healthcare providers who follow them.

So what’s my conclusion after all that? Well, for one thing, I conclude that I don’t want to go to anymore seminars for awhile. I’ve had my fill until next year. 🙂 I’m also planning to spend more time in the future figuring out a way to practice part-time and achieve some meaning out of it. I was talking to a professor at Auburn last week about a 2 day lecture I’m giving on Public Health Law, and he asked how long I practiced before taking my sabbatical. I thought back and counted 12 years, and his reply was, “Then you deserved it.” That made me feel pretty good. I’m 40… too old for some things and too young for others. My vision of Southern Farmhouse Ales is going to take a while to realize at the pace it’s going, but I’d rather take all the time I need to do that right, even if others could get it going faster. 12 more years of law? Maybe… depends on what it is and how it happens. I’m gonna be thinking about it.

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