New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced Monday the expansion of a program that pairs "emeritus" attorneys with pro bono opportunities to include practicing as well as retired attorneys.
The initiative was designed to tap into the large number of retiring baby boomers to boost the ranks of lawyers available to represent poor New Yorkers in foreclosure, housing, family and other civil cases.
"This recent amendment helps us to better leverage the demographic shift that is bringing unprecedented numbers of experienced lawyers to the verge of retirement and to channel those enormous resources to assist the growing number of vulnerable New Yorkers unable to find legal assistance," Lippman said in a statement.
Initially, the attorney emeritus program was open to retired lawyers in good standing who were at least 55 and had practiced law for at least 10 years.
In return for promising to provide at least 30 hours of free assistance a year to low- and moderate-income clients, the lawyers received free training and are exempt from the state's annual $375 registration fee and mandatory CLE requirements.
Last month, the initiative was one of 10 programs in the state to be recognized by Harvard Kennedy School's "Bright Ideas" program, which was created to share "creative government initiatives" around the country with public sector, nonprofit and academic communities.
Now, eligibility has been expanded to include nonretired lawyers who otherwise meet the program's age and experience requirements.
In an interview, Lippman said the change was prompted by an outpouring of interest from lawyers who wanted to participate in the initiative but were not yet ready to retire.
"Every place I'd go, people said the same thing, 'Gee, I'd like to do it, but I'd like to continue practicing,'" he said.
He said that when court officials kicked off the program in January, they had a particular "audience in mind" and had assumed that thousands of attorneys were ready to retire.
However, he said they had underestimated the large number of lawyers on the verge of retirement who wanted to do pro bono work.
A lot of attorneys from large firms with mandatory retirement are in the process of scaling down their practices, and lawyers from small firms might need from three to five years to wind down their practices, Lippman said.
"If we really want to tap into the baby boomers" the program needs to accommodate this "far greater" universe of lawyers, he said.
In May, when Lippman announced the appointment of a 30-member advisory council to form a blueprint for the attorney emeritus program, he told the New York Law Journal that the court system expected that it could attract "thousands" of retired attorney volunteers.
At the council's first meeting, Lippman said that some of these members said they might be interested in participating, but only if it meant that they did not have to give up their status as active practitioners.
"That was an eye opener," the chief judge said.
As of Monday, the program has matched roughly 200 volunteer lawyers with one of more than 50 participating legal service and pro bono providers.
However, by expanding the pool of eligible attorneys to include nonretirees, Lippman said, "I think that this program could become the biggest in the state in terms of pro bono volunteers."
According to Anthony Galvao, who serves as counsel to Lippman, roughly 45,650 attorneys in the state who are age 55 or older are registered as active, compared with 17,000 retired lawyers in the same age group.
Approximately 22,000 lawyers are expected to turn 55 within the next five years.
The court system is in the process of modifying the biennial attorney registration form so that active attorneys can indicate if they want to participate in the emeritus program.
Meanwhile, interested lawyers can call 877-800-0396 or complete an online application at www.nycourts.gov.