Governance & Membership

October 2019 President's Message

Changes to MCLE Hours Proposed

By Charles W. Chesnut

I learned in biology class that living things adapt and evolve, or they cease to exist. The same can be said for businesses and organizations, and even for systems within organizations. One of those systems that has been adapting and evolving over the years within the Oklahoma Bar Association is continuing legal education (CLE).

A primary responsibility of any unified (mandatory) bar association is to assist the Supreme Court in the regulation of the legal profession. Another is to serve its members and the profession as a whole.

In Oklahoma, a portion of the OBA’s assigned task to aid the court is fulfilled through the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) Commission, chaired by Mike Mordy of Ardmore. The MCLE administrator is Beverly Petry Lewis, who has been the supervisor of MCLE for more than 30 years and does a superb job. MCLE Commission rules currently require that each OBA attorney who is actively practicing law must obtain 12 hours of CLE each year with one of those hours consisting of ethics.

The theory is that CLE leads to more knowledgeable, competent and effective lawyers, which improves legal professional standards and leads to increased public confidence in the legal profession.

One of the ways the OBA serves its members is by providing quality legal education programming. A member survey has revealed that members consider CLE as the most important service the OBA provides. It is vitally important the OBA continues to make quality, affordable programming available to its members. Since 1986, the OBA has been the market leader in CLE in Oklahoma. While still the market leader, its market share decreases each year. There are over 1,000 CLE providers available to OBA members. A good number of those provide credit hours at no charge or provide programming that is much less expensive than the OBA. The budget reveals that revenue from CLE, although still one of the OBA’s primary revenue sources, has decreased each year since 2015. It has decreased markedly since 2005.

It was because of these and other factors that I felt it was important to undertake a thorough analysis of CLE in Oklahoma. As a result, the Continuing Legal Education Task Force was created to examine all aspects of CLE programming including types of programming, delivery methods and value to members. The real issue was whether the OBA needs to be in the CLE business, and if so, how should it best be structured to produce maximum effectiveness.

Jack Brown of Tulsa served as task force chair and President-Elect Susan Shields of Oklahoma City served as co-chair. Task force membership was comprised of a blue ribbon representation of lawyers from across the state, in addition to many OBA staff members.

This year the task force met monthly from January to June with the June meeting conducted jointly with the MCLE Commission. The task force discussed a wide range of topics involving CLE.

As a result of its meetings, and in an effort to have CLE in Oklahoma continue to evolve to best serve its members, the task force recommended action on the following matters:

  • Targeted CLE programs for new lawyers
  • Greater coordination with sections and committees on CLE programs
  • An increase in the number of mandatory legal ethics credits.

(Don’t get excited. The total number of CLE hours required will remain the same.)

There was lengthy discussion on increasing the overall number of required CLE credits that continued over several meetings. Information was submitted on the credits required in other states and different methods of obtaining credit. Although the task force did not reach a consensus on increasing the total number of credits, it did note that several states require more credits and allow credit to be earned by self-study and other delivery methods. (Last year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court amended the MCLE rules to allow all 12 hours to be obtained online.)

The task force ultimately decided to leave the total number of required credits at 12 per year. However, it did decide to recommend the adoption of a new definition of legal ethics and to increase the requirement of one hour to two hours of legal ethics credits per year.

There is a resolution before the House of Delegates this year that provides effective Jan. 1, 2021, of the 12 required instructional hours of CLE each year, at least two hours must be for programming on legal ethics and professionalism. Of the two required hours of continuing education on legal ethics and professionalism, one hour each year may be for programming on either legal ethics and professionalism, legal malpractice prevention, and/or mental health and substance use disorders.

Legal ethics and professionalism CLE programs will address the Code of Professional Conduct and tenets of the legal profession by which a lawyer demonstrates civility, honesty, integrity, fairness, competence, ethical conduct, public service and respect for the rule of law, the courts, clients, other lawyers, witnesses and unrepresented parties.

Mental health and substance use disorders programs will address issues such as attorney wellness and the prevention, detection and/or treatment of mental health disorders and/or substance use disorders which can affect a lawyer’s ability to provide competent and ethical legal services.

At its August meeting, the Board of Governors voted to recommend passage of the joint resolution going to the House of Delegates to amend the MCLE ethics requirements, expand the definition of legal ethics under the existing MCLE regulations and require an additional legal ethics credit each year. If passed, this will give OBA members greater opportunity for educational programs that address serious issues that impact the legal profession and the public. This resolution will be presented to the House of Delegates at its Annual Meeting and upon its passage will be submitted to the Supreme Court for approval.

A copy of the Continuing Legal Education Task Force report, along with the Executive Summary, is available online at www.okbar.org. If you would like to be better informed about the work undertaken by the task force, the scope of its discussions and the results reached by it, go online and review the report. It is well worth your time.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 90 pg. 4 (October 2019)