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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

MCLE crunch: What to do if you’re audited

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

With the State Bar stepping up its efforts to ensure attorneys are meeting their continuing education requirements, experts offer a number of tips to avoid getting in trouble – and prevent problems from ballooning in the event of an audit.   

Last year, the bar audited 635 lawyers chosen at random – 1 percent of attorneys whose Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) requirements were due. This year's audit will be broader with the bar planning to look at a 5-percent sample, or roughly 3,000 to 4,000 lawyers. 

Discipline defense attorneys who represent lawyers in State Bar Court agree that the best tactic, short of completing your MCLE requirements in the first place, is honesty.

“If you haven't done it, be straight with them,” said Jonathan Arons, a San Francisco-based legal ethics attorney. Lying to the bar can give the agency the impression that you are also willing to lie to clients, he said.

“You lie, you are going to get into more trouble,” said Arons, who also cautions against ignoring an audit notice.

Susan Margolis of Margolis & Margolis in Los Angeles agreed, noting that while meeting the MCLE requirements might seem inconvenient, it pales in comparison to a discipline proceeding.

Failing to fulfill education requirements can result in an administrative suspension, but lying about having done so could lead to a much more damaging moral turpitude charge, Margolis said.

“One ends up on your record as discipline, where the other doesn't,” she said.

Of the 600-plus lawyers selected for last year's audit, 98 were found not in compliance. Twenty four are facing potential discipline for falsely reporting they had met their requirements, and five were suspended for failing to respond to the audit.

The State Bar requires active attorneys, with some exceptions, to complete 25 hours of continuing education every three years including at least four hours of legal ethics, one hour of elimination of bias in the legal profession and one hour of prevention, detection and treatment of substance abuse or mental illness.

Arons said it can be easy to pick up most – if not all – of the required hours at the State Bar's annual meeting or through programs offered by local bar associations.

Dina DiLoreto, the bar’s managing director of member records and information, said attorneys must hold onto records for MCLE they have completed for a year after the Feb. 1 reporting deadline.

DiLoreto recommends keeping a log of courses to make it easier to respond to the audit in the event documentation is lost. MCLE providers are required to hold on to attendance records for four years and can provide duplicates.

For attorneys who haven’t met their MCLE requirements by the deadline, DiLoreto said there is a worst-case scenario option to buy a little more time. The bar initially charges a late fee of $75 and gives attorneys a 60-day notice to comply.

“Bite the bullet and pay the late fee,” DiLoreto said. “It's a small price to pay to get a little more time.”

The bar plans to send out letters for this year's audit in July. Those selected will need fill out an online MCLE compliance log and submit actual certificates of attendance, either by mail or email. For more information about the MCLE requirements, visit the State Bar's MCLE web page or call the Member Services Center at 1-888-800-3400.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the May 2012 edition of the California Bar Journal.