Attorneys, who must take continuing legal education courses to keep their license active, have traditionally taken them for a fee at their local bar association. But in recent years, an increasing number of alternative providers are offering CLE courses, both online and in-person, and often at no charge.
Amid this competitive environment, the Nassau County Bar Association is making a radical move regarding the 100-plus CLE courses it offers each year: The classes will now be free for members, effective July 1.
“In this new culture and new economy, bar associations face new challenges,” said Steven Leventhal, Nassau Bar president.
“Trying to get people to join the Bar Association, and on top of that, pay for CLEs has become more of a problem,” said Thomas Foley, dean of the Nassau Academy of Law, which is the Nassau Bar’s education arm. “We’re competing with ‘free’ – attorneys can often get credits for free, or many credits for a small price while sitting at a computer.”
By making CLEs a benefit of membership, the Nassau Bar hopes to add to its stable of 4,500 attorneys, judges, law students, paralegals and legal administrators.“Trying to get people to join the Bar Association, and on top of that, pay for CLEs has become more of a problem,” said Thomas Foley, dean of the Nassau Academy of Law, which is the Nassau Bar’s education arm. “We’re competing with ‘free’ – attorneys can often get credits for free, or many credits for a small price while sitting at a computer.”
In particular, Bar leaders hope the free CLEs will help bring younger attorneys through the door of its Mineola headquarters, which is known as Domus.
Membership in the Nassau Bar is free for law students and first-year attorneys.
“New attorneys are required to take a series of CLE classes,” said Leventhal, referring to the “Bridge the Gap” program. Attorneys must earn 32 Bridge the Gap credits in their first two years. After that, they must earn 24 credits every two years.
By making Bridge the Gap-free, the Nassau Bar hopes to lure new attorneys away from their computer screens so they can better appreciate all the benefits of membership.
“We’re hoping to bring new members to Domus to break bread together and learn from each other,” Leventhal said. “Collegiality is the hallmark of our profession. We may be adversaries in the courtroom but at Domus we’re colleagues. I deeply believe I am a far better lawyer today because of my active participation in the Bar Association. You learn about the substantive areas of law, about courthouse procedures, about how to conduct yourself as a professional.”
Networking is particularly important for newer lawyers, Leventhal said.
“They learn, they make valuable contacts, and they may also find employment opportunities through meeting other lawyers,” he said. “The most common style of practice on Long Island is solo or small firm practice, and when you’re not at a large firm, you don’t have many lawyers practicing in different disciplines that you can consult with as needed. At the Bar, you have a universe of lawyers practicing in every discipline, who can help and guide you. There’s also the opportunity to meet judges. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to walk into a courtroom and have already met the presiding judge.”
In addition to serving the profession, the Bar Association’s mission includes serving the public.
“The Bar offers an opportunity to make a difference,” Foley said. “We have different programs where attorneys volunteer their time.” These include free mortgage foreclosure and Hurricane Sandy legal consultation clinics and the We Care program, which raises funds for various charities.
Currently, the Nassau Bar’s CLE courses vary widely in price, but typically a member will pay about $30 for a one-credit course.
The bar is planning to increase its membership rate slightly to offset the lost CLE revenue. The current annual rate is $310 for a regular member, $145 for an associate member and $135 for a paralegal. The new membership rates were not yet decided at press time.
In addition to making CLE courses free, the Nassau Bar is mixing up the format.
Last month, the Bar offered its first Dean’s Cocktail Hour, which included one CLE credit.
“It was like a coffeehouse atmosphere,” Foley said. “Members had the opportunity to have a drink, and it was more interactive, with stand-up tables, as opposed to members sitting in rows and looking at the presenters.”
Last week, the Bar hosted a dramatic reenactment of a landmark civil rights case, Meredith v. Fair (see page 75). Twenty-five Nassau Bar members, including Leventhal, read parts for the lawyers, judges, and witnesses.
The event was spearheaded by the Nassau Bar’s diversity and inclusion committee, which was established earlier this year with a goal of engaging more members to participate on all levels at the Bar and ultimately develop a more inclusive leadership.
“For this meeting, we wanted to generate excitement for diversity at the Bar, and offer a topic that would be of interest to all attorneys from many different backgrounds,” said Hon. Linda Mejias, chair of the diversity and inclusion committee.
About 100 people were in the audience for the reenactment, which was free to attend, with an option to purchase two CLE credits for $50.
“We saw a lot of fresh faces,” Leventhal said. “I was very proud and pleased to see that this may be the start of a pathway for greater participation by diverse members in membership activities.”
Besides varying the format of CLE courses, the Bar also strives to feature topics that are in demand.
“We’ve recently offered a lot of courses on the business of law,” Foley said. “We have been bringing in accountants, CFOs and other businesspeople to talk about business topics – how to run a law firm like a business. Small to medium law firms do not have these types of resources in-house.”
Showcasing a landmark case
Attorneys and others were transported back to 1961 as they watched a reenactment of Meredith v. Fair, a landmark civil rights case in which James Meredith, an African-American student, applied for admission to the University of Mississippi, which had never admitted an African-American before. Meredith was rejected, despite being qualified, and he sued the university in federal court in Mississippi, claiming he was denied admission due to his race. Meredith ultimately prevailed.
Twenty-five members of the Nassau Bar had parts in the reenactment, which took place at the association’s Mineola headquarters May 2, before an audience of about 100 people.
Attorney Christopher DelliCarpini played Meredith and Nassau Academy of Law Past Dean Chandra Ortiz portrayed Constance Baker Motley, his attorney. Hon. Randall Eng played Chief Judge Sidney Mize of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, while Diana Lorzada Ruiz did the part of Dugas Shands, known for his underhanded tactics to manipulate African-Americans on the witness stand. Nassau Bar Treasurer Dorian Glover was Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
The event was spearheaded by the Nassau Bar’s diversity and inclusion committee.
“Presenting a performance is inclusive as well as fun for the performers and audience,” said Hon. Maxine Broderick, vice chair of the committee. “At the same time, it serves as an excellent opportunity to network with peers. In addition, we offered diversity CLEs for this production to satisfy the state-required ‘diversity, inclusion and elimination of bias’ CLE requirement.”
The script was meticulously based on actual court records, depositions, news reports and memoirs. As the actors spoke their lines, slides flashed on a nearby screen showing the real people they were portraying.
“It was a great program,” said Nassau Bar President Steven Leventhal, who portrayed Dixiecrat Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. “I was the bad guy. I played the governor who refused to integrate. If you’re like me, when you read through this script it makes you angry. As the civil rights era recedes farther and farther into the past, there are fewer of us that have actual personal memories of it. We thought it would be a valuable reminder to some and a revelation to others about the courage of the participants, the significance of the events and the vigor of the resistance to change, which we must always remember, as those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.”