Bar Exams, Law Schools, Pro Bono, Public Interest, State Judges

New York’s Pro Bono Requirement Unlikely To Close The ‘Justice Gap’

In May, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals announced that a new bar admission hurdle would be foisted upon the state’s would-be lawyers in the form of a 50-hour pro bono requirement. Last month, we found out that the new rule was “much better than it could have been,” since it allowed for the mandatory pro bono hours to be completed anywhere and at any time, including during bar admittees’ law school years.

That really doesn’t sound as bad as everyone thought it was going to be. The “justice gap” will be closed, the importance of public interest work will be stressed to new lawyers (even though existing lawyers will continue to maintain only an aspirational call to perform pro bono work), and everyone will hold hands, sing “Kumbaya,” and call it a day. At least that’s how Lippman envisioned it.

But now that everyone’s gotten used to the fact that New York’s pro bono rule is here to stay, some additional analysis has been performed by law schools statewide. Oh, you thought that the state’s “justice gap” was going to just disappear? Yeeeaaahhh, about that….

Although the rule that we’ll now dub “Lippman’s Law” was originally expected to add as much as 500,000 new hours of pro bono service each year, law school officials are now saying that it’s unlikely to deliver on that lofty goal, specifically due to the fact that the rule’s definition of “pro bono work” is so broad.

Given that qualifying “pro bono work” can be performed even during summer jobs with stipends and salaries, Lippman is backtracking. Thomson Reuters News & Insight has more on the good judge’s thoughts:

When asked about the 500,000-hour goal, a spokesman for Lippman said it was not a firm figure but an “estimate to describe the magnitude of the approach.” Lippman himself called the final rule a compromise, but said that many students would go beyond the 50-hour threshold and that the “great majority” of the work would benefit underserved people.

“We had a choice to say that only the most narrow definition of service to the poor would count, and we felt that left out a whole area of public service,” Lippman said. “And we didn’t want to make it so difficult” for schools, students and legal service providers to implement.

This so-called compromise now allows some law students who completed summer associateships in Biglaw to count themselves among those who have completed 50 hours of pro bono service. If you’d like to call someone’s bluff on that, consult with Stewart Schwab, dean of Cornell Law School, who claims that all but 14 of the school’s 192 class of 2012 grads would have qualified under the new rule. This is the world we live in, where law students who made five figures over the summer can claim to have completed pro bono work.

But, as noted by Matthew Diller, dean of Cardozo Law School, “pro bono work by law students is not by itself going to solve the underlying problem of access to counsel.” We agree. If anything is really going to change in New York — or any any other state in this country, for that matter — Lippman ought to lobby to change the state’s aspirational pro bono rule for existing attorneys to a mandatory one.

Too bad the odds of that happening are approximately nil.

NY pro bono rule could spur fewer hours than envisioned [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]

Earlier: New York Announces the Specifics of the New Pro Bono Requirement — and They’re Actually Not That Bad!
New York’s New Pro Bono Requirement Succeeds in Pissing Off Law Schools Nationwide
New York Forces Pro Bono Requirements Upon Would-Be Lawyers Because No One Else Cares About Poor People

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