Around the Blawgosphere: Bloggers Sound Off on New 50-Hour Pro Bono Prerequisite for NY Law License

  • Print

Lawyer-bloggers had a lot to say about New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Law Day announcement that would-be lawyers will have to perform 50 hours of pro bono before they can get a law license—the general sentiment being that it is a plan that has flaws.

Washington, D.C., solo Carolyn Elefant wrote at My Shingle that she thinks the program harms solo lawyers most of all. “The New York Bar president anticipates that some new graduates will satisfy the pro bono requirement after they’ve taken the bar exam and have started working in paid positions,” Elefant wrote. “Uh—new solos don’t have that luxury—starting out, many solos will take any work to make ends meet as they prepare to start a firm.”

But Victor Medina, who authors New Jersey Estate Planning | Medina Law Group commented on a post at Solo Practice University titled “NY’s New Lawyer Mandatory Pro Bono is Indentured Servitude” that he thinks the requirement isn’t onerous; new graduates could probably knock it out in less than a month. “There are at least three months between when you take the bar exam and when you find out the results, You can’t practice law during those three months anyways, you can’t get a malpractice binder, you can’t even hold yourself out as a lawyer. So, you have plenty of time to get it done (and if you’re coming in from another jurisdiction—you can do your pro bono there before you file the application based on reciprocity,” Medina wrote. “It’s also a false argument to say that a requirement to complete the hours would have negatively affected job prospects since everyone in New York will be facing the same requirement.”

University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos writes at Inside the Law School Scam that he thinks it’s “preposterous” to expect aspiring lawyers to work for free in this economy. But he also sees the measure as a sneaky political move. “While I personally am very much in favor of forcing rich people to transfer wealth to poor people, I’m strongly against using professional licensing requirements to enforce my or anybody else’s political desires, which is exactly what the learned judge is doing: ‘If you want the privilege and honor of practicing law in New York, you’re going to have to demonstrate that you’re committed to our values,’ ” Lippman said. ” ‘Committed to our values’ in this context means ‘being forced by the power of the state to participate in Jonathan Lippman’s pet political project if you want to be a lawyer in the jurisdiction entry into which he controls.’ “

Legal consultant Susan Hackett notes at Legal Executive Leadership that the enforcement of this measure will not come for free—and wonders if that money could be better directed. “What if that bar time and money were dedicated instead to pro bono work in the state? Might we have funded a significant group of full-time public interest lawyers to work at the best legal services organizations, rather than a small army of full-time bar application reviewers?”

At Simple Justice, Greenfield notes the lack of experience this new army will have, and whether this mandatory pro bono much of a deal for the clients of these novices. “The poor in need of legal services … get squat out of this, making it far harder to understand why this was a battle worth fighting,” Greenfield wrote. “The 50 hours isn’t enough to cover their case, leaving them either high and dry in the middle, or forced to switch horses from one lame lawyer to another, neither of whom has a clue what he’s doing.”

Constitutional Daily proposes an alternate solution: “If the idea is to increase the amount of pro bono services offered, the requirement should be that you must show you have provided 50 hours of pro bono services every five years. With roughly 160,000 attorneys in the state, this would more than triple the number of pro bono hours offered. What’s more, it would greatly increase the quality of those hours. Rather than an inexperienced 2L getting the requirement out of the way, you get an attorney with five, 10, or 25 years of experience helping you.”

Greenfield thinks that Lippman’s move is just the first step in that very direction. “Over the next decade or so, the duty will slide down the slippery slope, to lawyers with five years experience. Then 10. Then the rest of us, as part of registration renewal requirement,” he wrote. “My bet is Judge Lippman knows that lawyers are hated, and this may be the only way to address fulfillment of the need for legal services while possibly getting back in the good graces of society. He knows that we will bitch and moan about it, but that no one is going to burn their bar card and give up the profession over it. There’s no money to be made by walking away, and if lawyers are struggling to pay the rent, they can fill in the empty hours with some good deeds. We’ll find out it’s just not that big a deal. And we’ll do some good, maybe, in the meantime. And maybe people won’t hate us as much for it.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.