By Megan E. Davis
The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division recently took a first step toward offering an online version of its signature Practicing with Professionalism seminar.
At the division’s August 23 Board of Governors meeting on Marco Island, members voted 21-14 in favor of exploring supplementing live PWP seminars with online courses.
Opponents expressed concerns that moving away from the in-person attendance requirement that all new Bar members participate in a one-day training course designed to establish a basic level of professionalism might dilute the program’s message.
Such a change requires approval by both The Florida Bar Board of Governors’ Program Evaluation and Rules committees, followed by a favorable vote of the entire board, and acceptance by the Florida Supreme Court. The entire process could take up to 18 months, according to YLD President Melanie Griffin of Orlando.
“We’re at the very preliminary stages of a long process,” said Gordon Glover, co-chair of the YLD’s PWP Committee.
As Bar admissions have increased, so have the number of PWP seminars offered at various locations throughout the state. Though the YLD organizes 22 seminars each year, many new lawyers have difficulty getting into courses in their areas, according to Glover, who practices in The Villages.
“Courses typically sell out in the major cities quickly, sometimes in less than an hour, so a significant number of people who were not able to get into a course in their locality have to travel to another part of the state in order to complete the course within their first year of practice,” he said. “Last year several Miami lawyers had to fly to Tallahassee for a course. The primary focus of the Bar is member services and members have not been happy when they’ve had to buy a plane ticket, fly across the state, and get a hotel room in order to complete the course in the required time frame.”
Griffin said the situation forces both board members and Bar staff to field an increasing number of “customer service issues.”
“In many cases, [the lawyers’] first exposure to the Bar is not a positive one, which is what we don’t want,” Griffin said. “We do believe in the importance of PWP. It’s a great course and it’s important to be able to provide them with this course efficiently during their first year of practice.”
Griffin also noted that an increasing number of CLEs are now offered online.
“Online courses are not unique now,” she said. “Ten years ago, the idea of a webinar was unheard of, but we now have many attorneys getting education via the Internet.”
In 2010, the Supreme Court eliminated the requirement for in-person attendance at the three basic skills courses all new lawyers must take in their first three years of practice, but left intact the requirement of in-person attendance for the YLD’s Practicing with Professionalism course.
Since then, the YLD began offering its basic skills courses online as well as live, with “huge success,” Glover said.
Griffin said the advent of electronic CLE programs has increased sales and more lawyers are choosing to go above the Bar’s minimum requirement of three basic skills courses. Adding an online PWP component, Griffin said, also would free up YLD resources, including Bar staff time and money, for other projects.
“The YLD has so many wonderful projects and programs on which we work and one of them that’s obviously very important to us is PWP, but there are other things we’re in charge of like basic skills courses and pro bono efforts,” Griffin said. “We have limited resources and we would love to give our affiliates more and more grants and member and public service projects.”
The YLD’s annual budget for PWP seminars is more than $300,000 per year. Offering online courses and decreasing the number of live seminars by half could save $150,000 in costs associated with venues as well as staff time and travel, according to a report by the PWP committee.
Income from the courses would likely remain about the same, Glover said.
Those against an online option cited fears of softening the YLD’s message of the importance of professionalism.
“Moving this online is going to be getting our priorities out of place,” said Ashley Sybesma of Ft. Lauderdale, a member of an ad hoc committee formed in May to evaluate the effects of an online option for PWP. “With so many young lawyers entering the profession and the surge of social media, this message is more important than ever to deliver in person.”
Sybesma also expressed concern that lawyers may not give as much attention to an online course.
“When a CLE is online, it’s easier for people to play on their computers or it’s on in the background and they’re not paying attention,” Sybesma said. “It’s a lot harder to ignore someone when you’re there in person.”
Sybesma also said she believes it’s a small percentage of lawyers who are unable to attend PWP seminars in their areas.
“Maybe this is cynicism on my part, but my perception is that it just seems like poor planning on their part,” she said. “They complain they run businesses and don’t have time to do this. Well, we all run businesses, run our practices, and are very busy, but this is something we need to do.”
Following the vote, Glover said the YLD will flesh out details of a potential move online before the issue is taken up in Bar Board of Governors committees.
The YLD plans to explore measures to address board members’ concerns, such as requiring participants to pass a quiz following the online course or to enter a password periodically throughout the program, Griffin said.
Still, she said, she doesn’t believe moving PWP online will cause participants to be less engaged.
“I think [the argument] is a red herring,” Griffin said. “It doesn’t hold water. Presently young lawyers going to any CLE offered by the Bar are not prohibited from bringing an iPad, a laptop, or any other kind of instrument or tablet with them. One of the problems young lawyers have had is having to take off work. For some people, depending on how accommodating their employer is or what their caseload is like, that can be really stressful. If you have the option of taking PWP on their own time at night, on a weekend, or on a day when your caseload is manageable and, therefore, aren’t stressed out about filing some emergency motion, you’re going to have the opportunity to take it when you can best pay attention.”