Judges say they prefer taking classes in person but often can’t

By Ed Cohen

We asked NJC alumni this month if they prefer to get their judicial education in person or online.

In-person won with a small majority, 57 percent to 43 percent. But it was clear from the nearly 200 comments that the choice often depends on individual circumstances.

All other things being equal, there appears to be a clear preference for in-person classes, but many judges said they currently can’t afford the expense or the time away from the bench.

Note: The College has decided to begin offering most of its in-person classes in Reno as hybrids, meaning you can register to attend them either in person or online.

More than 600 judges from across the country and a few from abroad elected to respond to this month’s survey question, which was emailed, as always, to more than 12,000 NJC alumni.

Those who voted for in-person and added a comment tended to mention the treasured NJC experience of meeting judges from all over and finding out how different judges and courts handle common challenges of the profession. 

“The relationships and meeting with other judges in person provides at least 50 percent of the education,” wrote an anonymous judge.

“For a course with multiple subjects, live, in-person classes can’t be beat,” insisted Judge W. Mike Warren of the Oklahoma District Court for Harmon County. “The total experience of interacting with other judges throughout the world makes the NJC unique. The experience makes judges want to learn and want to return.”

“In-person is so much more impactful, it’s not even close,” declared Judge F. L. Gillings of the Marysville (Washington) Municipal Court.

Among those who expressed a preference for online options – either live courses and webinars or recorded material accessible on demand – many said they would rather attend in person. It was just that travel was too inconvenient, unreliable (airline delays and cancelations) or expensive.

“Right now I’m playing catch up,” wrote one anonymous judge. “The online classes fit better in my schedule. But I like conferences, too, when I am not so swamped. Still digging out from Covid.”

Judges in remote areas or with mobility issues said travel is a permanent impediment for them.

Lavonne K. Yazzie, court administrator of the Kayenta Judicial District, Judicial Branch of the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona, noted that her court is in the most rural area of the Navajo Nation.

“(Online) saves us time and travel expense to participate in excellent online classes,” she wrote.

District Court Judge Martha L. Mertz of Knoxville, Iowa, near Des Moines, commented: “As much as I think live classes are great for interaction and result in more participation, Reno is a long ways away, and if I can get the same information in an online webinar or an on-demand program, I am more likely to enroll in an online class.”

One anonymous judge mentioned not having a choice; the judge’s state requires all judicial training to be conducted in-state.

As much as many judges appreciate the convenience of online options, some said it can be difficult to learn online at work. Too many distractions.

“Very few people pay attention on virtual conferences and there is always a glitch with them,” complained Judge Robert L. Mack of the Clayton County Superior Court in Jonesboro, Georgia. “I hate them.”

Another judge was philosophical about the choice: “I’d prefer live (in-person classes), but I’d definitely prefer online to not attending the training at all.”

An unnamed judge who mentioned having 20 years’ experience as a justice of the peace and municipal court judge expressed a preference for online classes but thought in-person classes should be mandatory for any judge with less than six years’ experience.

Other suggestions from judges:

  • Make all in-person classes available for later viewing online by those who couldn’t attend.
  • Instead of an in-person class covering one topic for a whole week, offer several “bite-size” topics/classes concurrently that judges onsite could choose from during the week.
  • Offer more courses on the East Coast, preferably the Mid-Atlantic.
  • Make recorded classes eligible for CLE credit. (Note: Recorded programming already does offer CLE for states that will accept it.)
  • Schedule in-person classes during the summer to help single parents who may not be able to leave home during the school year.
  • Host live, in-person regional events either alone or in combination with local CLE providers.
  • Continue to offer very intensive classes in person over a full week (“A full week online is a recipe for burnout”), but presenting 2- or 3-day classes online would be OK .  

* Each month the College emails an informal, non-scientific, one-question survey to its more than 12,000 judicial alumni in the United States and abroad. The results, summarized in the NJC’s Judicial Edge Today, are not intended to be characterized as conclusive research findings.

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