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Mandatory CLE may finally get a vote

A long-dormant proposal to impose a mandatory continuing legal education requirement on Maryland lawyers may get a hearing in the Court of Appeals after a new chief judge is named, according to a panel discussion at the Maryland State Bar Association’s annual meeting.

It’s appropriate that Chief Judge Robert M. Bell’s successor “be part of the decision,” said Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, a proponent of mandatory CLE. Bell retires in July when he turns 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges in Maryland.

The Professionalism Commission, which was created by the Court of Appeals and headed by Battaglia, submitted its proposal for mandatory CLE in 2010. The proposal was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, 2011, but has not yet been approved by the Court of Appeals.

“We had a lot of discussion about what professionalism in Maryland and in the nation meant,” Battaglia said.

The commission is now called the Maryland Professionalism Center Inc.

Under the proposal, attorneys registered in the state would have to complete a minimum of 10 CLE hours every year, two of them dedicated to professionalism. Five of the hours can be obtained through self-study. Federal and state judges, magistrate judges, administrative law judges, masters, lawyers on active military duty and law clerks, would be exempt from the rule. Failure to meet the requirement could lead to a suspension.

Ways to fulfill the 10 hours include teaching, writing a book or taking an electronic CLE course, said Paul Mark Sandler, an attorney with Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler in Baltimore

“This is not a burden,” said Sandler, who spoke as part of the Family Law Section’s panel. “It would not be an albatross.”

The state bar association’s Family and Juvenile Law Section discussed the issue during a seminar Friday at the bar association’s 2013 annual meeting. Maryland is one of five states that does not require continuing legal education.

The topic has been under debate since the mid-1970s, but earlier proposals failed before reaching the Court of Appeals, Battaglia said.

“Isn’t the sacrifice worthwhile if the way people view us as an institution is improved?” said Glenn M. Grossman, bar counsel for the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.

Grossman said competent attorneys should already view continuing legal education as mandatory.

“I like to think we already have mandatory CLE, literally and figuratively,” said Grossman, who was also a member of the panel: literally for those attorneys who accept conditional diversion agreements rather than face disciplinary action, and figuratively as part of an attorney’s duty of competence.

Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Julia B. Weatherly, who also spoke on the panel, said she sees attorneys in her court who “are not bad lawyers or bad people,” but who need to brush up on basics, like rules of evidence.

“I view it as a fundamental part of practicing law, not as a punishment or an indulgence,” Weatherly said.

The MSBA, however, opposes mandatory CLE. While its board of governors has supported mandatory CLE in the past, the association polled members in late 2010 and, of those who responded, 70 percent opposed a mandatory requirement. Of about 20,000 polled by email, only around 4,000 lawyers responded, the panelists said.

Attorney Peter Markuski, of Goozman, Bernstein & Markuski in Laurel, spoke on the MSBA’s behalf during the discussion. He said there is no evidence that CLE requirements will lead to fewer attorneys getting in trouble.

“There is nothing that says if mandatory CLE is enacted, attorney grievances will go down whatsoever,” Markuski said.

There would also be an added expense to pay for classes, which can sometimes cost around $120 for one credit, Markuski said. A cost of $1,200 a year for 10 credits is not insignificant, especially for newly admitted attorneys, he noted.

Sandler is garnering support for mandatory CLE and asked attorneys to contact him if they would be willing to testify before the Court of Appeals in favor of it.

“The court thinks it’s [a one-day hearing], but I hope it’s several days with 150 to 200 people testifying,” Sandler said.

When asked if they supported mandatory CLE, a majority of people in the packed conference room raised their hands. When asked who opposed it, about half a dozen people raised their hands.

“We are serious about the law and serious about improving ourselves,” Sandler said.