Esther Lardent

... 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….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

I have written this column from many places: my parents’ couch, my local Starbucks, my bed, etc. I have yet to try it from atop a soapbox, but here goes.

It is common knowledge that the need for pro bono services is increasing as funding for pro bono organizations is decreasing (or ceasing altogether). As explained by ABA President Stephen Zack, in a letter opposing cuts to funding for the Legal Services Corporation, “[f]inancially, many Americans are still hanging on by their fingernails. The worst thing that could happen is to lose the place people can turn to when their money woes create legal problems.”

Similarly, as explained by Esther Lardent, President of the Pro Bono Institute, in her address at the 2011 Annual Seminar and Forum on In-House Pro Bono, with regard to the impact of the economic downturn, “for pro bono . . . the worst is yet to come.” Lardent explains that the loss of funding to pro bono organizations has posed a “justice crisis,” and the need for legal assistance will increase.

So, as a result of the economy, more people need legal aid, but fewer legal aid organizations are able to meet those needs. Clearly if these people are to be served, private lawyers are going to need to take the laboring oar — and they have. According to Lardent, pro bono hours performed by major law firms increased in 2009 (2010 data is not yet available).

What about small law firms?

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