In the CLE world, we often use a lot of different words to talk about the same thing. This is one of the challenges with working within a system that is regulated by so many sources - each state has their own language. One state may refer to "distance learning" while another calls these types of programs "technological transmissions" or "alternative verifiable learning formats" or...the list goes on. In most cases the language used by the state doesn't necessarily affect the type of credits issued - a credit, is a credit, is a credit.
But in the area of specialty credits, the distinctions and language used in your application may change the type of credit you can offer. Where this is seen most often is in the differences between ethics and professionalism. Several states (Georgia and Louisiana for example) require attorneys to complete credits in each of these categories every compliance period. If these states are requiring attorneys to take each, they have obviously determined that each word has a distinct and different definition from the other. Note: most states use the terms "ethics" and "professional responsibility" interchangeably.
In culling the rules and regulations of states which require both credit types, I've created a "cheat sheet" for the content development folks with whom I work which defines each and tries to point out the differences. Following these guidelines in the content creation process assists my accreditation staff in determining which type of credit to request. Below are my definitions:
Ethics topics deal with the actions of the individual attorney, and include, but are not limited to, instruction focusing on the Code of Professional Responsibility as they relate to legal ethics, malpractice avoidance, lawyer fees and the duties of lawyers to the judicial system, the public, clients and other lawyers. Ethics deals with the general subject of standards of conduct expected of lawyers acting in the representation of clients and in the public interest.
Examples of programs that should have Ethics credit:
- Hiring and firing clients (retainer agreements, terminating the client relationship, etc.)
- Client trust funds and handling client accounts
- “Ethically Dealing With Your Clients”, or “Ethical Advertising Practices”
Topics that focus on ethical dilemmas encountered in society, on business or corporate ethics, or ethical dilemmas in a non-legal profession, do not count as ethics CLE.
Examples of programs that should not have Ethics credit:
- Setting Up a Corporate Governance Program
- Sarbanes Oxley Ethics Issues for Your Corporation
Note: “Ethics” programs tend to deal with the negative aspects of practice of law. (contrast with “Professionalism” below).
Professionalism is conduct consistent with the tenets of the legal profession as demonstrated by a lawyer's civility, honesty, integrity, character, fairness, competence, ethical conduct, public service, and respect for the rule of law, the courts, clients, other lawyers, witnesses, and unrepresented parties. Professionalism topics include, but are not limited to, the values of competence, civility, ethics, integrity, respect for the rule of law, for the legal profession, for other lawyers and the courts, for clients and the public, fidelity to the lawyer's roles as officer of the court, counselor at law, resolver of problems, duties to provide pro bono legal representation and community and public service, to work for improvement of the law and the legal system, and to assure access to that system.
Note: “Professionalism” tends to deal with the positive aspects of the practice of law.