For decades, attorney Gene Schneyer faced the same choice that confronts all licensed Pennsylvania lawyers, one that’s not really a choice at all: Sit through 12 hours of continuing legal education credits every year or give up practicing law in the Keystone State.
For the bulk of his career, the 60-year-old Schneyer who specialized first in corporate securities and later in employment law did what he had to do and attended daylong seminars on such topics as tax or employment law, programs that he often found boring and only marginally useful.
“If most lawyers were honest about the CLE experience, they would tell you it is a necessary evil,” Schneyer, of the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, said, using the abbreviation for continuing legal education. “The amount that people learn is really minimal.”
But now that he’s retired — and maintaining his license to keep his options open — he has come to cherish his CLE courses. It’s not because he’s developed a newfound fascination with, say, the intricacies of federal contract compliance or recents trends in workers’ compensation.
Instead, his newfound enjoyment came after he learned that he could earn all of his required credits by studying law through a Jewish lens.
“I don’t adhere to halachah, but I am fascinated to learn about” what Jewish sources have to say about seemingly secular topics like the right to privacy or decisions on whether to withhold medical treatment for a terminally ill patient, said Schneyer, a member of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Abington. “Both as a lawyer and a Jew, I find it fascinating.”
Since the late 1990s, Jewish-themed CLEs have become something of a cottage industry in the region. That has come as the state board overseeing CLEs has tried to broaden the offerings.
And the phenomenon, which continues to grow, appears to be a win-win-win arrangement for all involved.
Lawyers can study an area of personal interest to fulfill a professional obligation. Jewish groups get to engage Jewish lawyers — and there’s no shortage of them — in aspects of the religious tradition. At the same time, these courses can provide some revenue for the groups: An hour of credit can typically cost anywhere from $40 to $200.
And for the Pennsylvania Continuing Legal Education Board, which oversees the accreditation of roughly 30,000 CLE courses across the state annually, approving Jewish topics for credit dovetails with the desire to make the CLE requirement less onerous and the course offerings more interesting.
“There is a breadth of topics that are approved for CLE. That is by design, said Dan Levering, who runs that board.
And it’s not Jews taking advantage of this approach. Levering said that it’s not uncommon for religious leaders of other faiths to teach seminars that have been approved for CLE credit.
A variety of groups now offer Jewish-themed courses for CLE credit: The Institute for Jewish Ethics, which is based in Center City and primarily runs CLE programs; the Brandeis Law Society, a group dedicated to advocating for the interests of Jewish attorneys; Chabad; the University of Pennsylvania; Jewish Social Policy Action Network, which is a social advocacy group; and the Philadelphia Society for Jewish Ethics, which is based in Bucks County and is part of a national organization offering CLE classes on Judaism and the law. Gratz College, one of the first institutions in the area to offer Jewish CLE courses, has cut back its program due to the high cost of running it but is still offering some selections, according to Joy Goldstein, the college president.
Some of these groups also offer courses that can satisfy requirements for physicians, dentists, accountants and social workers, but lawyers are the primary focus.
As Rabbi Moshe Brennan of Chabad of Penn Wynne put it, the popularity of Jewish CLE courses is a case of supply and demand or, maybe, it’s more like demand and demand. “They need the credits and we want them coming to Jewish courses.”
Brennan is currently teaching a course called “Life in the Balance” about medical issues. The program was developed by the Chabad-affiliated Rohr Jewish Learning Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is currently being taught by instructors at 350 Chabad houses around the world.
Does diving into Jewish wisdom make for more ethical attorneys?
Jeffrey Pasek, past president of JSPAN — an advocacy group that offers a handful of CLE-accredited credits for some of its public-policy programs — said that learning about Judaism and other faiths can be of great benefit to both Jewish and non-Jewish lawyers.
“Religion matters in the way people live their lives. Religious sources are often the sources of the moral norms that we see in the law,” said Pasek. “Understanding what religion says about these norms is often a great insight for how we interpret and how we advocate what the legal rules are or should be.”
Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus, a former chancellor of the Brandeis Law Society, which runs an annual event called Jewish Law Day, said that having Jewish lawyers learn about the Jewish ethical tradition “has to be a good thing.”
Rabbi Alexander Coleman began teaching CLE classes about a decade ago for the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, which is based in Elkins Park. Two years ago, he founded his own organization, the Institute for Jewish Ethics, which is based in a small office on Walnut Street. In addition to teaching CLE courses, he offers more informal instruction in the Torah and other Jewish texts.
The British-born Orthodox rabbi is a proponent of the idea that Judaism has a lot to say about contemporary secular issues. Programs, he said, that introduce a traditional Jewish perspective to hot-button topics like spying and eavesdropping draw in people who aren’t observant and might not come to class focusing on more esoteric aspects of Judaism.
“Ethics are so universal and are so applicable,” said Coleman, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia. “Many people don’t understand or appreciate how much application there is in the Talmud to current-day dilemmas.”
Last month, the institute co-sponsored a program at the National Constitution Center called “Society Under Surveillance” that featured the center’s president and CEO, legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen, as well as well-known Orthodox Rabbis Mordechai Becher and Shlomo Yaffe. Coleman said a trademark of his programs are that they feature experts in both Jewish and secular law.
On Nov. 14, the institute is tackling another hot issue at a program at the University of Pennsylvania. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides? The Ethics of Health Care Rationing,” will feature medical ethics scholar Dr. Daniel Eisenberg.
For 17 years, the Germantown Jewish Centre has been offering CLE courses at the Center City firm of Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis. The tradition started under the synagogue’s previous rabbi, Leonard Gordon, and now continues under its current religious leader, Adam Zeff.
Zeff has co-taught a class on Jewish and Islamic law and is now leading six sessions looking at ethical issues raised in film. Zeff said he loves the intellectual interaction. He noted that the classes held at the law firm attract a fair number of non-Jews curious about halachah.
“We are trying to think broadly. We will make them better or more self-aware lawyers,” he said. “These lawyers are very smart people and want to engage in a high-level discussion with these intellectual questions. This is a great way to do it and to socialize together and connect to something that is about their identities.”