The Pros of Mandatory Pro Bono Work
On the occasion of New York State's "Law Day" this past Tuesday, the Chief Judge for the New York Court of Appeals announced that beginning next year, all individuals seeking admission to the New York State Bar will be required to perform 50 hours of pro bono service prior to admission. The rationale for the new rule proposed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is to respond to the growing need for affordable legal services among the poor.
There's no doubt that legal services are unavailable to a wide swath of the American population. In fact, the country's largest provider of legal services to the poor, the Legal Aid Society, turns away approximately eight out of every nine people seeking legal help with civil matters because it simply does not have the resources to take on the case load. Obviously, requiring a huge group of people to perform pro bono work will help to close this gaping statistic. Approximately 10,000 people apply every year to the NY State Bar, so multiply that by 50 hours per person and an additional 500,000 hours of pro bono work will be made available to individuals who previously couldn't find affordable help.
I'm a firm believer in utilizing my training as a lawyer to provide pro bono services. Over the course of the last three years, for example, I have spent a substantial amount of time representing a Maryland State prison inmate in a civil rights lawsuit against a correctional officer who assaulted him while escorting him back to his cell. I also serve on the Board of Directors of a nonprofit foundation and apply my legal training regularly to assisting the organization's efforts to solidify its infrastructure and ensure compliance with relevant tax laws.
It's no surprise then that I strongly support the idea of a pro bono requirement. The work is personally enriching and has a direct impact on our society and on the life of the indiviudals to whom the legal assistance is provided. Nevertheless, I believe that Chief Judge Lippman's proposal charges the wrong group of people with the responsibility of providing legal services for the poor. Rather than require aspiring lawyers to provide pro bono services, lawyers already admitted to the State Bar should be mandated to perform a certain number of hours of pro bono work each year. Just because pro bono work means essentially free or severely discounted legal representation, it does not mean that clients should "get what they pay for." That is, it's unfair to penalize an individual for his or her inability to pay for legal representation by having the least experienced attorney available represent him or her. Individuals seeking admission to the State Bar also typically have a lot on their plate including, among other things, working towards their law school graduation, sitting for the State Bar exam and finding a job that provides professional satisfaction and a steady source of income. Adding a pro bono requirement could negatively impact their ability to focus on these other very important issues.
Instead of imposing a pro bono requirement on lawyers seeking admission to the state bar, it makes more sense to have (a) lawyers admitted within the past year perform 50 hours of pro bono work, or (b) all lawers admitted to the NY State Bar perform a minimum of 25 hours of pro bono work. The first proposal is modeled after the District of Columbia Bar, which mandates that newly admitted lawyers take a day-long professional ethics course in the District of Columbia within one year of their admission or risk suspension from the bar. The second proposal reduces the number of pro bono hours but vastly increases the pool of legal providers.
Both of these proposals are consistent with Judge Lippman's goal of increasing the number of legal providers available to represent the poor in legal matters that arise. They have the added bonus of being more practical and easier to implement and should serve as a model to other State bars considering the difficult challenge facing the provision of legal services to the poor.
I apologize for my extended absence from writing, but I have been in the midst of dealing with a significant transition at my day job. Fortunately, everything is back on track and I'm happy to report that I've moved firms. You can read more about this transition here: http://legaltimes.typepad.com/blt/2012/04/after-three-decade-run-dc-boutique-janis-schuelke-wechsler-dissolves.html