Bar Exams, Pro Bono, Public Interest, State Judges, Ted Frank

New York Forces Pro Bono Requirements Upon Would-Be Lawyers Because No One Else Cares About Poor People

... except when it's forced upon us.

As we mentioned in Morning Docket, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals announced yesterday that a new bar admission hurdle would be foisted upon would-be lawyers in the state, in the form of a 50-hour pro bono requirement.

Apparently poor people in the Empire State have been having trouble securing legal services, so what better way to assist them than to force similarly situated people to come to their aid? Instead of relying upon existing attorneys to lend a helping hand to those in need, Judge Lippman has chosen to force the task upon those who have no choice but to obey.

Chief Judge Lippman had a good idea, but it’s a bit misplaced. Let’s discuss what the new pro bono requirement means for you, and delve into what others are saying about it….

Prospective New York bar examinees may be worrying without reason, because detailed regulations have yet to be drafted. And while Chief Judge Lippman would prefer that this mandatory pro bono work take place in New York, we do not yet know whether that will be required.

That being said, you’ll “probably” be allowed to count work done while in law school in another state toward the new pro bono requirement — but no guarantees have been made. Maybe you’ll get lucky; maybe you won’t. We’ll have to wait and see.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the real issue here: Chief Judge Lippman has certainly done his part to improve New York’s “justice gap,” but his pro bono requirement for new admittees hasn’t exactly been well received by all sides. A New York Times article on the subject cuts to the core of the argument against it:

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman

[Chief Judge Lippman’s] latest measure may prove more controversial, some of his admirers said, because it wades into a fierce debate among lawyers over whether mandatory pro bono service is the right solution — and because it could hit the pocketbooks of young lawyers at a time when they are struggling to find jobs. …

“Lawyers do not like to be told what to do,” said Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, a nonprofit group that works with law firms to improve their pro bono services. “I worry about poor people with lawyers who don’t want to be there.” …

Ms. Lardent, who supports pro bono requirements for law students, said she liked a “big audacious idea” if it did not place undue burdens on young lawyers who face a difficult job market and, if they are new to New York, may need help finding appropriate pro bono work.

Indeed. Other observers have had some choice things to say about Judge Lippman’s new pro bono requirement, too:

  • Ted Frank: “[T]his proposal imposing a tax on attorneys is preferable to proposals taxing a broader tax base for the same thing under the guise of ‘civil Gideon.'”

  • Susan Cartier Liebel: “This is indentured servitude, not pro bono.”
  • Professor Paul Campos: “Lippman’s initiative is so utterly wrongheaded on so many levels that it’s [more] tempting to reply to it with exasperated silence than to even begin to point out why.”

And with all of the problems that are currently being faced by new lawyers, one would think that thrusting a pro bono admission requirement upon them would be the least of New York’s worries. Recent law school graduates have a difficult row to hoe. Many of them have six figures of student debt to shoulder — debt that’s not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Some of these would-be lawyers will have to desperately attempt to obtain paid work, but let’s put another stepping stone in their way. Because hey, why expect more of people who have already been admitted to the bar? Let’s force the newbies to attend to the state’s needs.

In his Law Day speech before a packed room yesterday, Chief Judge Lippman mused: “If pro bono is a core value of our profession, and it is — and if we aspire for all practicing attorneys to devote a meaningful portion of their time to public service, and they should — these ideals ought to be instilled from the start, when one first aspires to be a member of the profession.”

Yeah, pro bono is a real “core value” of the profession in New York. Oh, did you forget that Rule 6.1 of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct contains only an aspirational call to perform pro bono service? New York would probably be better served by an amendment to the state’s own ethical code than this new requirement.

The first thing we do, let’s kill indenture all the lawyers. Because forcing people who are already on food stamps to work for free is clearly the best option for improving access to pro bono legal services in New York.

Lippman Announces Pro Bono Requirement for Bar Admission [New York Law Journal]
Top Judge Makes Free Legal Work Mandatory for Joining State Bar [New York Times]
Another Hurdle for Would-Be Lawyers in New York: 50 Hours of Pro Bono [ABA Journal]

Earlier: From J.D. to Food Stamps: The Personal Cost of Going to Law School
Not Even Bankruptcy Will Make Your Student Loans Go Away

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