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This ain’t your grandpa’s CLE

A new wave of Continuing Legal Education uses movies, games and laughter to help lawyers take stock of their own mental health.

Amber Nimocks//February 13, 2012

This ain’t your grandpa’s CLE

A new wave of Continuing Legal Education uses movies, games and laughter to help lawyers take stock of their own mental health.

Amber Nimocks//February 13, 2012

Watching Batman movies and playing bingo might seem better suited to a 6-year-old’s birthday party than a professional development seminar, but when you’re trying to persuade a roomful of lawyers to take stock of their own mental health, you do whatever works.

Over the years, Continuing Legal Education seminars on mental health, addiction and ethics have evolved beyond the standard, heart-wrenching testimonial to include multimedia programs studded with film, comedy, games and even modern dance. Credit that change to an ongoing effort to create an environment of acceptance and support in a profession known for high stress levels and burnout rates.

Continuing Legal Education seminars

Getting lawyers into the meeting room is one thing. Penetrating their defenses is another. Chris Osborn, a practicing attorney in the Charlotte firm Horack Talley Pharr & Lowndes, believes entertainment helps. His company, ReelTime CLE, has gained traction lately with film-laden mental health seminars. One of their most popular programs, “Don’t Let the Jokers Drive You Batty!” uses scenes from the films “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.”

Osborn said he and his partner, Michael Kahn, a former practicing attorney and licensed professional counselor, choose films that offer cautionary tales of the long, jagged paths lawyers sometimes follow to ethical oblivion.

“Nobody wakes up one day and says ‘Today I’d like to loot the trust account and put my law license in jeopardy,’ ” Osborn said.

For Osborn, the interrogation scene in “The Dark Knight” holds deep truths about the unraveling of an ethical code. Consider how the Joker gets under Batman’s skin. The villain suffers Batman’s beating while provoking him to greater violence: “You have all these rules and you think they’ll save you … The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules, and tonight you’re gonna break your one rule.”

“I’m considering it,” Batman growls.

Osborn said the onscreen exchange struck a familiar chord. “The Joker really keeps pushing at Batman and gets him to lose his ethical moorings, and it’s just making him crazy,” he said.

Everyone’s got a Joker

Most lawyers know the feeling. The Joker in their life could be a client, a colleague, an opposing attorney, anyone who knows how to push their buttons. Dealing with jokers can push otherwise reliable people to make shaky ethical decisions, Osborn said.

“That was born out of some experience that I was having – in law and my life outside the law – I noticed that the interactions were having an effect on me and changing the way I act,” he said.

Terry Burnett, director of the South Carolina Bar’s CLE division, has been programming Osborn and Kahn’s seminars for three years. Titles like “Don’t Let the Jokers Drive You Batty!” help reel attorneys in.

“It’s a fine line sometimes between communicating a real, serious message and creating a title that will catch people’s attention,” he said. “It certainly has gotten people’s attention and I think it’s been a good thing.”

Burnett said catchy titles are just the first step of getting lawyers to focus on the issues.

“We want to be able to give attorneys something that will challenge them, engage them, and not just have the information wash over them,” he said.

Hitting home with messages, especially those concerning mental health and substance abuse, is increasingly important. Mark Merritt, chairman of the board of the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program, said the number of attorneys seeking help with addiction and depression has climbed as the economy has stalled.

“We have seen that with the numbers of new cases we’ve been opening,” he said “There’s no doubt economic duress or distress can contribute to mental health problems.”

The number of new LAP cases filed annually has climbed from 119 in 2009 to 138 in 2011. Program officials attribute that in part to the economy and in part to increased awareness. Since the N.C. Bar began requiring substance abuse and mental health education in 2002, the number of LAP clients who seek help themselves, rather than being referred, has grown. Today, between 52 and 55 percent of LAP’s cases are self-referrals, compared to less than 10 percent a decade ago.

South Carolina established its requirement for substance abuse and mental health CLE last year. Robert Turnbull, director of the S.C. Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers program, said a recent wave of lawyer suicides spurred the new mandate.

“From my perspective, doing what I do and the knowledge that I have, our profession is at extreme high risk,” Turnbull said. “It’s just a high-stress profession and we just aren’t trained to cope with this stuff.”

Demand for mental health and substance abuse training is up since the mandate went into effect, he said.

“We’re still in our first full year, and our requests for CLEs and presentations has quadrupled,” he said. “Where we used to do one a month, we’re now doing one or two a week.”

Merritt said mental health training is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Programs that employ the arts can help people access emotions they need to stay mentally healthy. At a recent CLE, the presenter used clips from the Sandra Bullock film “28 Days,” played the Don McLean song “Vincent” while flashing images of Van Gogh paintings and presented a video of dancers whose choreography was inspired by their addiction struggles.

“Sue unto others”

Finding the right medium for the message is a gift. Sean Carter works in humor. A Harvard Law grad, Carter practiced corporate securities law for about a decade before chucking his legal career to pursue stand-up comedy full time. While he was waiting on his big break, a friend suggested he present a humorous ethics CLE. That first CLE led to a slate of programs that Carter calls “Lawpsided Seminars,” which he often presents in North Carolina. Carter’s self-deprecating sense of humor and quick delivery help ease the tension of thorny topics.

He tackles the idea of dealing with difficult personalities in his professionalism seminar “Sue Unto Others As You Would Have Them Sue Unto You.” Real-life, legal experience and hindsight filtered through good humor fuel his presentation.

“I spent plenty of time locked in the bathroom saying the serenity prayer: ‘Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom not to stab this fool in the parking lot,’ ” he said.

Carter has not dealt with addiction issues himself, but he employs a novel approach in his seminar “Lawghter is the Best Medicine,” in which a game called Substance Abuse Bingo is played. Each square on the bingo card corresponds to a symptom question, such as “Does your colleague call in ‘sick’ more than twice a month?” and “Is your colleague experiencing financial difficulties?”

Asking the questions about a third party helps relax defenses, too, Carter said. It prompts attorneys to evaluate their own behavior without feeling accused.

It also zeroes in on one thing every attorney needs and can give: help.

Osborn says that’s one way to keep the jokers from driving you batty.

“Bring a colleague in,” Obsorn suggested. “Don’t fly solo. Take care of yourself well before, during and after having to deal with one of these situations.”

Deadlines approaching for CLE credit

Deadlines to log and report annual CLE hours are looming in North Carolina and South Carolina, which means lawyers will be cramming CLEs into their schedules in the coming weeks. The North Carolina State Bar mandates 12 CLE hours annually, including two hours of ethics or professionalism training per year, and one hour of substance abuse and mental health training every three years. The deadline is Feb. 29.

In South Carolina, the deadline for logging and reporting CLE hours is March 1. South Carolina mandates 14 hours of CLE training annually, including two hours of ethics training. Beginning in March 2011, the state began requiring one hour of substance abuse and mental health training every three years.

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