Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio State Bar Association
May 5, 2011

You know every time I’m introduced as the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court I look around for Chief Moyer. We’ve all done that for almost 24 years. And I can only hope to build on Tom’s accomplishments. I think we’ve got a great start in doing that. Again with the staff we have at the court, which is the same staff that was there when Tom was there, and with the contributions of my colleagues. But I can’t hear the word “Chief” without thinking of Tom. Tom loved to address the Ohio State Bar Association as well. Come to think of it, any gathering of lawyers, or judges, or Rotarians, or you name it, Tom would be there at the drop of a hat. We all miss him.

My purpose today is to share some of the ideas that I have about the challenges we face in the judiciary and the legal profession and to talk to you about getting you thinking about solutions because there will be challenges, and they will need solutions. If we don’t have collaboration, if we don’t work together, we’re not going to meet those challenges.  

One of the challenges I want to talk to you about today is education. Don’t worry colleagues I’m not talking about DeRolph. By education I mean the particular obligation that we as lawyers have to support the legal and the judicial education in its myriad forms, for the public, and for ourselves. We have a particular professional obligation to support education; first to ourselves, and to the public. I want to talk today about the education of the bar. Are we doing a good job with educating ourselves?

Are we fulfilling our obligation to support education when it comes to the profession? How are we doing in educating ourselves? We know that the most important educational area that involves lawyers is the area of our CLEs. CLE is a great thing. When one is participating in a program that is convenient, that is interesting, and that is relevant to one’s area of practice; or at least convenient and interesting and one that you are learning about areas that may not be part of your practice but they’re interesting areas of practice and you are learning. And that is extremely important.

Remember over 20 years ago when Ohio attorneys were first made to apply with CLE? That was 1988, and even before that, in 1981 the judges in the state of Ohio had requirements established for the judiciary in the form of judicial continuing legal education. And while the number of CLE hours hasn’t changed for attorneys, the topics sure have. No longer is it just about law office management and basic probate. And those are the two courses that I continuously remember taking when CLE was first offered.

Now courses deal with interpreter services, diversity, substance abuse, specialty dockets, technology, national and international topics as well as probate and law office management. All in all the educational requirements and the reporting of those requirements for attorneys and for judges have moved from being a relatively straight forward operation to becoming increasingly complicated and complex.

And this is particularly true of judicial education. As a result, the requirements for judges, magistrates, and lawyers are different and this causes confusion and some frustration for lawyers and judges as well as CLE providers.

When a judge and an attorney attend the same program, unless the program was on judicial ethics, the judge attending that program would not receive the ethics credit while an attorney attending that program would receive the ethics credit. The judge would receive one hour of general credit. But that course would not fulfill the 10-hour role for courses that must be taken from the Ohio Judicial College for judges. And that’s one example of the complication that has arisen with how we require the CLE and how we count it.

Sometimes it seems easier to order from a Chinese restaurant menu written in Chinese than to decipher and report our CLE credits. The Commission on Continuing Legal Education and the Judicial College have been studying the complexity surrounding CLE in Ohio and have identified a number of areas where we might make the system better, and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today. I believe that it is time to take a long hard look at the system that has been in place since the ‘80s and see where we can do better, and what we can accomplish.

The commission is conducting a review of Rule X of the Rules for the Government of the Bar, which sets forth the requirements for continuing legal education, as well as the regulations on attorney CLE education.

As an attorney admitted to the Ohio bar, you will receive a survey from the commission. This survey will only take a few minutes, and your responses will be confidential, unless of course you would like to identify yourself for continued conversation on follow up questions. It’s really what I like to call a “Goldilocks Survey.” We want to know if you think the way CLE is orchestrated in the state of Ohio currently is too much, too little, or just right. The survey will ask you your feedback on some of the following topics: how CLE is delivered and earned, should self-study course credit be capped, is the current six hour cap sufficient or should it be expanded?

CLE rules currently say that an event is precluded from CLE credit if food is consumed concurrent with the presentation. What are your thoughts on that? I’ve heard a lot about that. Blocks of presentations in CLE programs have to be in one-hour increments, minimally, and it has to be uninterrupted one-hour increments, again this will be your opportunity to weigh in on that criterion. To what extent are you currently able to obtain CLE credits on relevant topics, at a reasonable cost that provides significant intellectual or practical content intended to improve your professional confidence? That’s a very important question.

And if you’re a new lawyer have you been able to readily find CLE satisfying the new lawyer training requirements? If not, what in your opinion is preventing you from doing that? If you’re admitted to practice in states other than Ohio, how would you compare Ohio CLE requirements with other states to which you are a member? What is the important consideration when deciding what type of CLE to take? Is it convenience, is it price, is it topic, is it relevance, or is it just plain compliance?

I want to take the opportunity today to share some of the ideas with you that we have been batting around and also to invite the membership and the leadership of the Ohio State Bar Association to join us in a dialogue about how we can make the CLE better.

Sometimes it seems that there are more questions than answers. Gov. Bar Rule X imposes a cap, for example, on certain types of activities, which means that attorneys including judges cannot receive credit over a predetermined limit. For example, as I said, judges and lawyers cannot receive credit for more than six hours of self-study or online education. Does this make sense in an increasingly interconnected world where online instruction has proven to be as good, or better in some cases, than in-person instruction? Should we consider expanding the amount of online credit that’s allowed for CLE?

Another idea for consideration came directly from the Ohio State Bar Association: a new CLE regulation to allow attorneys to earn one hour of CLE credit for every six hours of pro bono service provided up to a maximum of say six CLE credits per two year reporting period.

Now I recognize that all of these ideas have both their supporters and their detractors and that’s OK. Because I want to lead and facilitate a process where we can arrive at a consensus on CLE, where we can work together for improvements. The court’s Commission on CLE are experts in this area, and we have very experienced and knowledgeable staff members who are more than willing to join hands with the Ohio State Bar Association and its membership and come together for a discussion of these very important topics.

In Ohio the dialogue has begun and I’m confident that changes to Ohio CLE requirements will be proposed and put out there for public comment. I welcome the input and the participation of the Ohio State Bar Association as we work together to improve the system. The process will be ongoing, just as we did in implementing CLE requirements for attorneys and judges that have evolved over time, the last 20 years plus, to make additional learning objectives that benefit the state’s justice system. So too will we continue to look at the ways to make earning these hours more convenient and to simplify the rules.

I view the process of reforming the CLE as part of a particular obligation that we as lawyers have to support education in the law. From CLE to civic education to law school training to community outreach, as lawyers we are called to both support and pursue lifelong learning.

Let me conclude by quoting the Rules of Professional Conduct, which clearly spell out the special obligation that we all have: “A lawyer should seek improvement of the law, ensure access to the legal system, advance the administration of justice, and exemplify the quality of service rendered by the legal profession. As a member of a learned profession, a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in the reform of the law, and work to strengthen legal education. In addition a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law in the justice system because legal institutions in the constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”

Thank you, and God bless.