Wednesday, December 14, 2005

MCLE comes to Illinois

For those unfamiliar with the acronym, MCLE stands for Mandatory Continuing Legal Education -- or, in the quaint parlance of the new Illinois Supreme Court Rules (scroll down to Rule 790 et seq.) "Minimum" Continuing Legal Education.

However the initials are translated, MCLE is a boondoggle, a well-intended, but entirely useless gesture designed to increase public confidence in the Illinois bar.

This is not a rant about whether people should have confidence in lawyers generally. Lawyers do things, either for people or to people. If you're someone that a lawyer is doing something to chances are that this lawyer, and maybe all lawyers, will not be popular. So far as you're concerned. Conversely, if you're someone that a lawyer is doing something for, you may have a high opinion of that lawyer -- at least until you get the bill -- but you'll probably hate the lawyer on the other side. So lawyers shouldn't worry about being popular. When we're needed, we're popular enough.

Nor is this a claim that continuing legal education is unnecessary. It's necessary alright. We all continue to learn, all the time -- unless we starve to death (and sometimes we're learning all the way downhill) -- or unless we become very senior partners in very big firms and can pay others to learn for us. Why do you think it's called the practice of law? There are a million and one opportunities for a lawyer to keep up to date. I have long bookmarked the recent uploads page on the Illinois Courts web site; this has all Illinois Appellate and Supreme Court cases decided in the last 30 days, some of them so recent that they're not even yet in Westlaw. To which I also subscribe. I read the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and publications from the Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois State Bar Association, and the Appellate Lawyers Association, and the American Bar Association. It's a wonder, sometimes, I find time to do any work at all.

Sometimes the best learning opportunities come while you're waiting in court for your case to be called. When I had dark hair -- heck, when I had hair -- I'd often get ideas on six other cases just waiting for my case to be called in the Law Division Motion Court. Just by listening to the judge and the arguments of counsel. So I'm not against continuing to learn.

No, what upsets me is that this PR gesture -- which, as noted, won't actually improve our actual public relations -- will cost me time and money I don't have, to take courses that have no immediate, practical application. It will provide a tax break for the wealthiest among us, who will do their learning in exotic locales or on cruise ships. Bob Clifford, one of the most successful personal injury lawyers in Chicago (or anywhere), and certainly a wealthy man, recently became our Illinois delegate to the American Bar Association; I received a form letter from him this week touting the wonderful CLE opportunities at the upcoming Annual Meeting -- in Hawaii.

Doctors have been running this scam for years. And 'scam' really is the wrong word. Under the tax code, it is perfectly legal to deduct at least some of the cost of taking a trip to attend a continuing education seminar. Some -- probably not all.

Anyway, I'll not be able to take Mr. Clifford up on his kind invitation. The ABA doesn't offer the CLE I need anyway.

I need a course in getting clients to pay their bills. Today I won a splendid victory for a client in court; the court's order today will save my client thousands of dollars in fees and avoid significant lost time and inconvenience for his staff. But will the client care? Not likely: It's already figured out the best way to save money on fees -- it doesn't pay them. Indeed, this particular client is 0 for 2005.

Ah, you say, you could take a course in learning how to say 'no' to deadbeat clients. And there are courses that promise help in this area. But the deadbeat client in this case is a company sent to me by another attorney who has been very good about sending paying clients in the past. Dumping this deadbeat client might jeopardize a very beneficial referral relationship -- and give the referring attorney a problem with an in-law. So that's not an option.

And, this morning, when I came into the office, before I went to court -- in fact every morning when I come into the office for the past month -- I gaze longingly into my desk drawer at a check for $100,000. The check has my name on it. But I can't cash it. It's not all mine. It has the client's name on it too. And the client is -- so far -- unwilling to sign off on it.

Right now the "problem" is expert costs; the client has so far cited one bill for about $112. I said, fine, I think the expert provided you with very helpful opinions that materially advanced the chances of settling the case -- but if you think this particular charge -- about 1.5% of the total expert's bill -- is a problem, I'll take it off my bill. Reduce my fee by that amount. Just sign the check authorization so I can deposit the check.

But, no, the client says. The client has always been suspicious of this expert. The client now feels compelled to scrutinize all of the various bills submitted by the expert -- but right now the client is very busy and can't be bothered. So the check sits in my desk. Uncashed. And the finance charges on my credit cards long since passed the $112 mark.

This is a case that settled in April. April. That's eight months ago so far. And the amount of the settlement? That $100,000 check represents the limit of the Defendant's insurance coverage. In fact, the final settlement amount is for 100% of the potentially available insurance coverage -- including the full amount of my client's underinsured motorist's coverage. With no lien. And the Defendant is paying something out of his own pocket on top of all this. But the client hoped for more. (Not that the client would be bothered attending a pre-trial conference in futherance of those hopes of getting more -- but that's another story too.)

But the client eventually agreed to settle -- when you're getting more than 100% of the insurance money available, why shouldn't you agree? -- and then refused to sign any Release of Claim until October. I won't bore you with any additional details. Suffice it to say that I scanned the check into an Adobe file. I'm thinking of sending the .pdf to my mortgage company, and to Messrs. Master Card and Visa. I've already told my kids they're getting copies of the check for Christmas.

You got a CLE course that will get that check cashed? In such a course I'd be interested. But I couldn't pay for it. Not at the moment.

These aforementioned cash flow fiascos notwithstanding, I make a decent living. But I blow any dollar I make on foolish things like... tuition... or groceries. I have three kids in college, another in a Catholic high school, and a fifth in a Catholic grammar school. Hawaii with the ABA? We haven't had a family vacation in eight years (just a few weekend trips to one son's baseball tournaments). I'm afraid to be away from my phone for more than a day or two at a time. A real client might call; a paying client.

You got a CLE course that will guarantee me 10 paying clients? Five? Even one? No? Then I don't need or want your CLE.

But I sure hope you -- the public -- are happy now that MCLE has come to Illinois.

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