A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
In academia, the old rule for professors is “Publish or perish.” For many other careers, including the legal profession, it could be “Study or step aside.”
Attorneys in most U.S. jurisdictions and in many other countries are required to take a certain amount of continuing education as long as they are in practice. Typically this means attending workshops, lectures and seminars or webinars devoted to specific legal topics and conducted by recognized entities.
The Virgin Islands revised its regulations for Continuing Legal Education last fall, modifying Supreme Court Rule 208 that governs CLE, by expanding the options for individuals to comply and, at the same time, tightening controls to ensure compliance.
The court has the actual authority, but the Virgin Islands Bar Association, through its CLE Committee, administers the program and has the responsibility for monitoring all of the members of the Bar.
V.I. Bar President Nycole Thompson, who incidentally is the former chairwoman of the CLE Committee, cited language from Rule 208 in explaining its purpose: “Continuing professional education of lawyers serves to improve the administration of justice and benefit the public interest. Regular participation in Continuing Legal Education programs will enhance the professional skills of practicing lawyers, afford them periodic opportunities for professional self-evaluation, and improve the quality of legal services rendered to the public.”
Each state and each territory in the U.S. sets its own rules. A review of the basics, as listed on the American Bar Association’s website, indicates that the Virgin Islands is in step with other jurisdictions.
The territory requires 12 credit hours annually and requires each attorney to certify his/her hours by Jan. 31 of the year following the year in which the credit hours were earned. At least two of the credit hours must be in ethics.
A number of states and territories require anywhere from 10 to 15 credit hours annually and also require annual certification. Most also specify that a certain number of hours must involve ethics training.
Others municipalities spread the reporting over two or three years and up the total number of credit hours; for instance, attorneys in New York have two years to certify their CLEs but must have a minimum of 24 credit hours in that two-year timeframe.
In some places, an hour is an hour. In many others – including the Virgin Islands – a “credit hour” is 50 minutes.
Under the old rule in the territory, a lawyer who earned more than 12 credit hours in one year could carry over a limited amount to the next year. The recent revision expanded that option. Attorneys may use up to six “carried over” credit hours per year, though credits cannot be held for more than three years.
Members also have a lot of options for earning credits.
Rule 208 lists numerous organizations that are automatically accepted as providing CLE courses. Among them are the various courts in the Virgin Islands, The American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, the American Law Institute, the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, the National Judicial College, the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, the Federal Public Defender’s Office, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Schools, the U.S. Navy Naval Justice School, the Veterans Administration Office of General Counsel and West LegalEdcenter.
Additionally the V.I. Bar’s CLE Committee can approve workshops or events. Earlier this month, for instance, the committee approved a request to allow 1.5 credit hours to attorneys who attended a talk given as part of The Forum’s visiting speaker series.
A number of self-study courses online are also eligible for CLE credits.
And, of course, the V.I. Bar Association sponsors seminars and workshops. Members can earn credits by attending, and/or they can earn credits by participating in them as presenters.
“The VIBA’s goal is to be the preeminent provider of CLEs for our members,” Thompson said. It sponsors two seminars each year and also conducts quarterly meetings.
She shared the agenda for the December day-long CLE program, which featured sessions on eight different topics:
– “United States Supreme Court and Third Circuit Case Update” by Patrick Ehlers, assistant federal defender, Oregon;
– “Conscious Communication for Attorneys” by Laura Nagi of Conscious Communication of the Virgin Islands and BoltNagi PC, and Jennifer Alvarez, Conscious Communication trainer and mediator;
– “Tips for Practice in the Third Circuit and Traps to Avoid” by a panel of Third Circuit judges;
– “Admissibility of Social Network and Internet Based Evidence” by James A. Edwards, trial lawyer and mediator from Florida;
– “Unauthorized Practice of Law” by attorneys Leon Bass and K. Glenda Cameron;
– “A Guide to Crawford in the V.I.” (regarding evidence rules) by Sigrid M. Tejo-Sprotte, assistant attorney general with V.I. Justice Department;
– “Ethical Challenges for the Modern Day Practitioner” by Patrick Ehlers;
– and “Civility Matters” by a panel of attorneys.
Each of the sessions carried a value of at least one CLE credit, and the “Tips” session was worth 1.5 credit hours. People could attend as many sessions as they wanted, for a total of 8.5.
Members are also able to earn credits at quarterly meetings.
Just recently the Bar’s young Lawyers Division Committee has become active on the CLE front. “On the last Friday of each month of 2014, the young Lawyers Division will be putting on a CLE and dinner program in order to provide economical CLEs and networking to the young lawyers in the Virgin Islands Bar Association,” Thompson said.
The first guest presenter, in January, was District Court Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller. Thompson said Miller reviewed some of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and urged attendees to remember Rule 1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which states in part that the rules should be construed and administered to secure “the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.”
While the emphasis on CLE is to provide meaningful experiences and to keep the obligation from being burdensome, Rule 208 contains sticks as well as the carrots. If an attorney fails to provide proof of the minimum number of credit hours earned the previous year by Jan. 31, he or she must petition the CLE committee for an extension of time. The committee cannot extend the time beyond April 30 even its members want to do so. It takes the Supreme Court to do that.
The committee is charged with auditing all Bar members every year to ensure compliance, and it must report delinquencies to the court. An attorney who does not comply can be suspended from practice by the court.