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Pro Bono Requirement to Join NY Bar

By Irina Tarsis

Few, if any, New York State law students know that May 1 is known as a Law Day, at least in the United States and among lawyers. Another curious fact law students may find noteworthy is that New York State may soon require them to work for free for 50 hours before being licensed to practice.

This year, on May Day or Law Day 2012, in his address to judges, lawyers and lawmakers assembled in Albany, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced that starting in 2013, the approximately 10,000 applicants to the New York State Bar will have to show that they have performed 50 hours of pro bono work to qualify for admission. The impetus for requiring thousands of hours of unpaid work from recent graduates comes from the undeniable fact that a growing number of people in New York State cannot afford legal services: artists and blue colored workers, veterans and single parents, victims of domestic violence and the elderly. Free legal service providers such as The Legal Aid Society, Pro Bono Partnership, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest have witnessed an increase in requests for free assistance with civil legal matters since the economic downturn. The courts have noted that the legal system is failing to provide justice to those unable to afford legal counsel. Lippman believes that the requirement would begin to satisfy the unmet need for lawyers to represent the poor and encourage lawyers-to-be to serve the public.

As a member of EASL's Pro Bono Committee, I agree that it is important to provide assistance to those who need it for reasons other than personal financial enrichment. We already offer free services for some transactional and litigation matters and provide opportunities to law students and recent graduates to shadow experienced attorneys performing pro bono work. However, making pro bono work mandatory may not be the best way of encouraging attorneys to help.

The same economic conditions that have forced more people to seek free representation have left hundreds of recent graduates with little work prospects (for more, read about legal actions brought by law graduates against their schools, such as: "Grads Can't Sue Law School for Allegedly Inflating Job Data," Bloomberg BNA (April 11, 2012 available at http://www.bna.com/grads-cant-sue-n12884908890/) or the state of law firms such as Dewey and LeBoeuf in the New York Times ("For Law Students, Dewey & LeBoeuf Internships Evaporate" (May 3, 2012) available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/business/derailed-on-the-fast-track.html)). Legal positions advertising for junior attorneys are consistently asking for 3 to 5 years of legal experience. The conundrum is obvious. If the newly graduating attorneys can be put to use in helping the poor, they would gain hard legal skills and perhaps become employable in a few years time; however, they require training, supervision and means to survive.

Some of the concerns with the Lippman initiative include whether the State may be pairing poor people with lawyers who resent the task; should the State settle young lawyers, already in debt and struggling to find jobs with additional obligations and blocks to bar admission, what are the benefits of relegating representation of the indigent to inexperienced and thus underqualified counsel?

Law school administrators in New York State are faced with these questions: How may law schools assist in bridging the gap and increase free legal services to the indigent? How can the schools make their graduates more marketable and employable after three years of classroom training?

To provide quality pro bono work as contemplated by Lippman's announcement would require supervision and training either at schools with experienced clinical faculty, at understaffed and underfunded free legal service providers, or at firms, ever-reticent to foot the bill for loss-making work. The hidden costs of such training by nonprofits will have to be addressed either through increased tuitions or through state funding - another conundrum. An optimist would argue that in light of the importance placed on clinical education and practical skills, students are likely to embrace the new requirement. A realist would hedge and say that students would be open to taking on more extracurricular activities only if they can fulfill the requirement while in law school or if they are guaranteed employment subsequently. According to Lippman, admission to New York state bar is "most coveted;" however, even that coveted license gives no guarantees.


Anne Barnard, "Top Judge Makes Free Legal Work Mandatory for Joining State Bar," THE NEW YORK TIME (May 1, 2012) available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/02/nyregion/new-lawyers-in-new-york-to-be-required-to-do-some-work-free.html.

Joel Stashenko, "Lippman Announces Pro Bono Requirement for Bar Admission," NY Law Journal (May 1, 2012) available at http://www.newyorklawjournal.com/PubArticleNY.jsp?id=1202550864281&slreturn=1.

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