Tennessee Supreme Court Adopts Changes to Rule Governing Continuing Education for Attorneys

December 16, 2014

Comprehensive changes to continuing education requirements for attorneys in Tennessee will go into effect January 1, 2015. In an order filed December 16, the Court overhauls Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 21, making the most significant changes since the Rule was adopted in 1986.

The amended Rule increases the age for attorneys exempted from continuing legal education (CLE) to 70 from 65. This change does not apply retroactively to attorneys who reach age 65 by December 31, 2014, but requires attorneys who reach age 65 after that date to fulfill CLE through the year they turn 70. All attorneys older than 70 will continue to be exempted from CLE as long as they file a request with the CLE Commission.

In addition to the age requirement, the amended Rule exempts full-time law professors who are not practicing law from CLE and allows attorneys to earn CLE for law-related courses taught at colleges and community colleges.

The amended Rule will continue to permit attorneys to earn one hour of CLE for every five hours of pro bono work they perform, up to an annual maximum of three hours of dual CLE. Under the prior rule, pro bono work counted only toward ethics and professionalism CLE. The amended Rule also will continue to permit lawyers to earn up to eight hours of CLE annually through “distance learning” programs. The amended Rule provides that a minimum of five hours of the annual 15-hour requirement shall be in-classroom hours of CLE.

The order also sets out minor deadline changes to Sections 6 and 7 of the Rule that will go into effect January 1, 2016. Those sections address the several-step process for fees and, ultimately, suspension for attorneys that do not comply with the CLE requirements. With the change, annual statements to attorneys will be mailed by February 28 each year instead of by the end of January.

Finally, under the amended Rule, the body that administers CLE – the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization – will shed the specialization designation from its name. Since 1994 the Commission has certified legal specialists in more than a dozen specialty areas of the law, such as bankruptcy, estate planning, and family law.

The Commission relies mostly on certifying organizations approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) House of Delegates. With the name change, the Commission will no longer perform its own certification, but will maintain and publish a “Roll of Certified Specialists” that includes attorneys who have been awarded specialist certifications from an ABA-accredited organization and have registered that designation with the Commission.

The Commission first proposed changes to Rule 21 late last year, and then suggested further amendments in January. The Court received dozens of comments from attorneys on the proposals, mostly related to the proposed age requirements related to earning CLE hours.

See the new Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 21 in its entirety here.