For decades, continuing legal education seminars have followed a basic formula: pack a meeting room with attorneys — most of whom would rather be elsewhere — while a speaker lectures on ethics, professionalism or best practices. Online seminars were the same, aside from the requirement to attend in person.
“We kept thinking that there might be more cutting-edge, newer ways to do that,” said Charles Plattsmier, chief disciplinary counsel at the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Donna Roberts, administrator for the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board, Plattsmier and other staffers kicked around the idea and came up with “True Attorney Disciplinary Case Files,” or as they refer to it, must-see CLE.
The first installment of the Web series dramatizes three ethical dilemmas that ultimately led to disciplinary action by the state Supreme Court. Plattsmier compared the re-enactments to a television show.
The Disciplinary Board had “hundreds and hundreds” of cases from which to choose. The board narrowed the field to 10 cases and then picked the three staff members they thought made for the most riveting drama. The board looked for Supreme Court decisions that were informative and instructive, as well as “different and entertaining,” Plattsmier said.
In each of the decisions, the lawyer’s license was suspended. The cases chosen around Louisiana involved:
- A lawyer who, after winning a $1 million-plus settlement for his client, asked her for a $50,000 loan. The lawyer didn’t tell his client she could ask another attorney for advice before making the loan or that the loan terms were very favorable. Among other things, the attorney didn’t have to post any security, sign a promissory note or pay any interest.
After a year without any payments, the client filed a complaint.
“He also forgot to tell her that he had gone through a terrible divorce and essentially was borrowing the money to keep his law office alive,” Plattsmier said.
- Two lawyers who shared office space but were not partners. One attorney’s client received a $380,000 inheritance. She wanted investment advice. Her attorney referred her to his suite mate, who was a stockbroker as well as an attorney.
The broker/attorney took control of her money and invested it, charging her a fee for the service. Ultimately the investment didn’t work out, and the client sued. The woman thought she was consulting an attorney for his financial expertise, but the broker/attorney claimed he was only serving as a financial adviser.
The question the Supreme Court had to decide was if the woman and the broker/attorney had an attorney-client relationship, and whether the business arrangement included the proper protections for the client.
- One suspended lawyer killing another on a Thanksgiving Day. The surviving attorney pleaded guilty. The judge sentenced him to 10 years but suspended the entire sentence — an illegally light sentence. Realizing the judge had made a mistake, the attorney appealed his conviction. The Supreme Court agreed and sent the case back to the district court for trial. By the time that happened, witnesses had moved or were no longer available. The District Attorney’s Office had to dismiss the case.
The office wanted the attorney permanently disbarred for professional misconduct. The attorney didn’t want to give up his license to practice law.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel literally had to do a homicide prosecution to prove the attorney was guilty of professional misconduct, Plattsmier said.
The episodes use dialogue pulled from the transcripts of the disciplinary hearings but also rely heavily on narrative background. “It sort of helps to tell the story as we go,” said Plattsmier, who served as narrator. “The actors tend to be members of the system, hearing committee members, board staff members, ODC members, none of whom are in an actor’s guild and were not paid a dime,” Plattsmier said, laughing.
But the real key to the project has been two “scary smart” undergrads enrolled in Loyola University of New Orleans’ film production program.
The interns, Brett Roberts and Michael Rees, were actually the only professionals involved in the production, Plattsmier said. Roberts and Rees were paid for their time, although admittedly the pay was low. The major benefit for the students was the opportunity to put their education into practice.
Roberts wrote the scripts and produced the episodes. The Disciplinary Board staff provided the guidance on the facts of the cases and advice on the rules of professional conduct.
The Disciplinary Board appears to be one of the few, if not the only group offering Continuing Legal Ed through online webisodes. Neither the Louisiana nor the American Bar associations offer the service. The Association for continuing legal education’s website lists a number of different educational programs, but none involve webisodes or re-enactments.
“There’s CLE requirements everywhere, and we have ethics components,” said Kateri Walsh, director of media relations for the Oregon State Bar. “So they have to get a certain amount of education every reporting period.”
From time to time, a CLE seminar will include a skit or a re-enactment, and more content is moving online, Walsh said. But she doesn’t know of any Web-based programs that include those segments.
“If it’s well-done, it could be kind of neat,” said Walsh, who works with Karen Lee, president of the Association of Continuing Education and CLE director for the Oregon State Bar.
Plattsmier said the response has been good so far. When the Disciplinary Board posted the trailer for “True Attorney” on its Facebook page, the entry drew 100 likes in the first couple of days.
“Which, I guess, tells us folks are intrigued by the concept,” Plattsmier said.
The Web series also offers attorneys and the board a couple of advantages.
Instead of traveling to a seminar, attorneys can watch from their office or home at their convenience. The Web series is inexpensive, $15 for an hour of CLE. The average cost for an hour of continuing legal ed in Louisiana is $50.
“You’ve got to remember that lawyers have until Dec. 31 to get in 12.5 hours of CLE,” Plattsmier said. “And lawyers, like most folks, are wonderfully efficient at putting things off. If they can procrastinate until the last minute, they do.”
The result is that many attorneys find themselves in need of continuing legal ed hours at the end of the year, he said. The people who put on CLE seminars know this, too, so the price per hour of CLE goes up and can be $100 or more per hour.
Plattsmier said the Web series’ convenience and price will benefit attorneys. The Web series also was economical for the Disciplinary Board.
The board puts on several CLE seminars each year, spending $20,000 to $25,000 a year to rent space and travel to the locations, Plattsmier said. The total cost for the Web series, which took six weeks to film and edit, was less than $4,500, including equipment costs.
The Disciplinary Board hopes to produce a series of the webisodes each year. The idea behind the Web series is to offer instruction on professional conduct that lawyers can easily incorporate into their own practices, so they can avoid even the possibility of disciplinary complaints, much less actual discipline, he said.
“That’s our goal, and if something new and innovative and different captures their attention and provides us with a platform imparting that information to them, then by golly, I think that’s what we’re going to do,” Plattsmier said.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.