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Future attractions: on-demand learning

Will lawyers soon flick on their TVs at home to brush up on their skills using a Netflix-like model, the costs of which are covered by their law society membership fees?

Maybe. Certainly the technology has arrived. And, step by step, the legal community is warming to the idea of online continuing professional development (CPD).

“I took an online course on January 10, 2012 called ‘Grammar and Proof- reading Skills for Lawyers and Para- legals’ presented online by the Law Society of Upper Canada,” recalls Susan Brown, an Ottawa-based partner with Fraser Milner Casgrain. “After I did the course, I went to the Law Society website and registered for three hours of professionalism credit for taking this course.”

Lawyers at Brown’s firm had also registered for online January Law Society courses, such as “Construction Lien Essentials” and “Title and Off-Title Searching.”

With increasing amounts of CPD offered via the web, it may be possible for lawyers to fulfill CPD requirements with- out leaving the office. But should they?

The advantages

Few lawyers debate the convenience and cost-effectiveness of online CPD.

“Imagine I want to go to the ‘six-minute update’ on commercial leasing, which is generally offered in Toronto,” Brown says. “I used to have to take a day out of my practice in Ottawa, make my way down to Toronto and spend the morning following the subject matter training. Now, I can turn on my computer in my office in Ottawa and get exactly the same training at my desk. I can be available to deal with issues in my practice.”

You might think lawyers sidestepping travel costs would be the prime audience for CPD. Meredith Woods once thought so as well. “When we started, we anticipated that the people who would attend would be from out of town, from outside the Lower Mainland,” says the manager of online education and resources for the Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia. “But a large percentage of people attending Vancouver-hosted CPD are from Vancouver.”

The possibilities

Since online CPD sessions are broadcast, they can be recorded as well. So it’s only natural for lawyers such as Toronto-based Garry Wise of Wise Law Office to envision law societies building up video CPD libraries. “Opening access to libraries, even to the public, gives programs that lawyers work so hard to produce a longer shelf life. It might be good for attracting clients too.”

Speaking as a lawyer obliged to attend sessions, Wise wants scheduling flexibility. “There were times I was scheduled to be at a program and something came up and I couldn’t make it,” he says. “It was a shame and a waste of money.”

Schedules aren’t the only elements of CPD that Wise wants to get away from. He produced an introductory video for a fall 2011 panel he presented with three other lawyers, leveraging the advantages of edited materials over “pure” live recordings. “When I combined images and narration and snippets of live interviews, it allowed me to quickly introduce the topic,” he says. “Maybe CPD of the future is properly produced materials that have been edited, so that those four-hour programs are edited down to two.”

Such programs can also be paused so that lawyers can make notes, take time to consider points, perhaps discuss them with others, even step away from the computer for 10 minutes — all without missing any content.

Lawyers on Wise’s wavelength might want to check out British Columbia’s CLE-TV. “You can buy a subscription to an archive of all our sessions since we started recording them,” says Woods of CLE-TV. “You can get CPD credit if you watch with other people present.

“We’re leaning toward creating online-only products,” she says. “CLE-TV was designed as online-only. It is intended to be more interactive, to make people feel like they’re there with the presenter. The presenter doesn’t look at people in the room. The presenter is with the online audience. Presenters take questions directly from the online chat feature.”

Video subscription systems might tie in to law society CPD registration systems so that completion of courses offered by the society can be automatically noted by the society.

Given the ever-increasing popularity of mobile video devices, such as smartphones and tablets, CPD providers may need to adopt mobile-friendly technology. For instance, it may have to abandon the popular Flash format since Adobe Inc. discontinued support for Flash on mobile devices in 2011.

The drawbacks

Professional development isn’t just about learning. Lawyers can attend events to practice public speaking, mentor younger lawyers and catch up with their colleagues.

“The collegiality, the contact between lawyers, you can’t reproduce that online,” Brown points out.

Technology snafus, while becoming rarer, have not yet been eradicated. When they crop up, having in-house tech support makes a difference. “In smaller offices, I think you have to have people with an interest and a comfort level with technology,” Brown suggests.

Tracking attendance at online events can be tricky. One possible solution: having attendees complete and submit e-learning “coursework” that could serve as proof of attendance as well as of comprehension.

Wise would like to see CPD programs delivered by the Law Society included in the society’s membership fees. “If the Law Society is serious — and I know it is — about ensuring that lawyers are as up-to-date as possible, in knowledge in their core areas and in general knowledge, then rather than creating cost impediments, a library of video materials should be made available to the profession on an on-demand basis.

“I might not watch all four hours of a program. But my knowledge overall would be broadened by that kind of access, since I would be far more inclined to go beyond my core areas.

“I can see charging for live events. Once videos have been in the archives for a reasonable period of time, they should be made free to the profession.

“That would be the Law Society walking the walk.”

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. For a PDF of this article, click here.