Pro Bono

Following New York's lead, California bar officials plan to require pro bono work for admission

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Following New York’s lead, bar officials in California are in the process of developing a pro bono program for law students who plan to practice in the state.

Like the policy adopted by the New York Court of Appeals, which took effect Jan. 1, the California plan requires 50 pro bono hours. However, the New York requirement must be completed before applying for admission to the bar. In California, young lawyers would be allowed to perform the 50 hours of free legal work either before or after they are admitted.

A State Bar of California web page provides additional details about the plan, which must be approved by the state legislature and the California Supreme Court before it is final, according to the Los Angeles Times (sub. req.).

Officials at legal aid organizations say more help representing low-income individuals who can’t afford lawyers is greatly needed. However, some question whether untrained law students and recent law graduates will be an effective substitute for the funding needed to operate legal aid programs under the supervision of experienced attorneys.

One key source of funding, interest from attorney trust accounts, plunged during the recession as interest rates dropped. The total plummeted fom $22.8 million in 2008 to $5.2 million in 2014, the newspaper reports. Meanwhile, funding from other sources, including government grants and private donations, also was cut.

While legal organizations would like to put law students and recent law grads to work on pro bono assignments, they need to train and supervise them and provide office space.

Currently, only 10 percent of the law students who apply to volunteer at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles are accepted, because the group doesn’t have resources to oversee more more, pro bono director Phong Wong tells the newspaper.

“The need is definitely there. We turn away so many low-income clients because we don’t have the support, the resources to help them,” says Wong. “At the same time, there are all these law students who can be put to use. We just need to figure out how to make it work for the clients that we serve.”

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: “New York’s new rule requires bar applicants to perform 50 hours of pro bono”

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