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Closing the Justice Gap September 26, 2012

Posted by Afflatus in Uncategorized.
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Perhaps the biggest news in the public interest legal world right now is the new requirement that applicants to the New York Bar must have completed at least 50 hours of pro bono legal work. This is the first of its kind in the United States, but it’s easy to foresee that other states will soon follow New York’s lead.

The details of the program were announced on September 19 by Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Jonathan Lippman. It’s a flexible program – the work can be performed anywhere in the United States, and it uses a wide-ranging definition of public service work. Work in law clinic, for example, will count towards the program as long as it is counted for school credit.

Those that are complaining about the new requirement should reconsider. This small requirement will help institutionalize the importance of public interest work for the legal profession. It will also energize the trend in legal education towards experiential learning, incentivizing schools to create more opportunities for their students to perform pro bono work. Indeed, this is already happening. New York Law School announced a new Pro Bono Initiative as a result of the new requirement.

Hannah Arterian, Dean of Syracuse University College of Law, complained the 50-hour requirement “is a whole other level of responsibility that the law schools have to take on.” Really? I hardly need to point out how cold-hearted and unsympathetic she sounds.

Those that can give back must do so. This will help us all remember that. 50 hours is not a very high number. This can be accomplished easily in one semester or one summer. The most reasonable objection is that the requirement will create additional burdens for legal aid organizations as they work to onboard and train the young attorneys-to-be. But this is a good problem to have. Public interest legal organizations can work with universities to make sure the students are capable and prepared. They will surely find ways to turn this additional talent into a resource to carry out their mission more fully.

It’s estimated that civil legal services providers in New York turn away as many as eight of every nine people seeking their assistance due to a lack of resources, according to a task force on legal aid formed by Lippman. Eight of every nine people in need! 50 hours is the least a new attorney should be required to do, and thanks to Judge Lippman, that is now the law.

This is a great step for New York, and for the tradition of pro bono legal work. Millions of New Yorkers in need of legal services will  now receive it. Other states should raise their pro bono standards. Those lawyers that are already barred should take heed and redouble their efforts to help close the justice gap.

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