New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has promulgated a new rule that requires law students to put in 50 hours of pro bono legal work as a precondition of their becoming certified to practice law in the state.
The pioneering new regulation states that aspiring lawyers have to perform the unpaid work for poverty-stricken individuals, nonprofit organizations or civil rights groups, or for any of the three official branches of government. The law students must do the socially beneficial work between the first year of law school and the time they apply for a law license. While this pro bono activity can be performed in any location around the world, the students engaged in it are required to be under the supervision of a practicing lawyer, judge or a member of a law school faculty. The new law will go into effect for new students in law schools on January 1.
At the time that Judge Lippman first proposed the new rule in May, some members of the legal community expressed concern that it might be quite difficult to bear for new attorneys in a sluggish economy. Additionally, other legal professionals cautioned about utilizing neophyte lawyers to fill what Lippman calls the “justice gap,” meaning the increasing amount of people who are simply unable to afford legal services.
However, an advisory committee that crafted the final version of the requirement countered some of those criticisms by noting that law students are given an expansive time frame of three years to complete the pro bono work, and they would be performing it under the counsel of more experienced lawyers. “I see absolutely no reason why aspiring lawyers can’t do this without greatly burdening themselves,” Judge Lippman emphasized. “This idea that you have to be a lawyer with 25 years experience to provide a service doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The new rule was apparently motivated by the findings of a task force convened by the chief judge in 2010, which discovered that only 20 percent of New Yorkers’ legal needs were being met. In particular, people coping with eviction, child support and consumer credit cases tend to be without proper legal representation.
According to Steven Banks, the chief lawyer of the Legal Aid Society – which is the largest provider of legal assistance services in New York State – his organization rejects an average of eight out of every nine people requesting help. Banks said that the new pro bono requirement would be a boon to his time-strapped lawyers. “This is literally a shot in the arm to help address a very serious gap in access to justice,” Mr. Banks said.
The chief judge – who acquired $40 million from the current state budget to provide funding for civil legal services – noted that the latest regulation will enable the state to set a new standard for the offering of civil legal services. “We’re going to write the script nationally,” Judge Lippman said. “I think what we’re doing will be replicated around the country.”