It’s been nearly a year since the New York State court system announced its first-of-its-kind 50-hour pro bono requirement for new attorneys. No state has followed suit yet, but that may soon change. Leaders of the State Bar of California are poised this fall to adopt a similar rule, while a task force of ­judges, legal educators and attorneys in New Jersey is weighing the merits. Any move by California could well have a ripple effect throughout the country.

"Obviously California’s interest is heartening," said New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who conceived of the state’s requirement. "I think if you have the two biggest states in terms of lawyers, that covers a lot of ground as far as new attorneys in this country. When you look at the next five or 10 years, I think this will be the norm in the United States."

Lippman announced New York’s pro bono requirement in May 2012. Many applauded the move as a way to improve access to legal services for the poor and instill a sense of professional responsibility in new lawyers, but some criticized the rule for heaping additional responsibilities on already busy and financially strapped law students, and for placing a new training burden on legal service organizations.

Effective in 2015, every applicant to the New York State Bar Association must have completed 50 hours of pro bono legal work. Supervised work done in law school clinics and for nonprofit organizations, plus court clerkships or externships, will count toward the requirement.

New York’s move caught the attention of the members of the California bar’s Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform, bar executive director Joseph Dunn said. The bar created the task force more than a year ago to examine whether to require some form of a practical-skills training for new lawyers.

The task force recently unveiled a draft report containing three key recommendations: adoption of a 50-hour pro bono mandate; requiring new lawyers to complete either 15 credit hours involving practical skills or a six-month apprenticeship or clerkship after graduation; and requiring new lawyers to complete 10 hours of specially designed continuing legal education courses.

"In our view, a new set of practical-skills requirements focusing on competency and professionalism should be adopted in California in order to better prepare new lawyers for successful transition into law practice, and many of these new requirements ought to take effect pre-admission, prior to the granting of a law license," the report reads.

California’s proposed pro bono mandate differs slightly from the New York rule in that new lawyers could fulfill the requirement either in law school or during their first year of practice.

‘MAXIMUM FLEXIBILITY’

"We wanted to give law students the maximum flexibility in achieving their 50 hours of pro bono. Thus, we allow them to fulfill it anytime from the middle of their law school years to the end of their first year in practice," Dunn said.

The mandate would go into effect in 2015. The task force is expected to sign off on its recommendations in June, and the bar’s board of directors would vote as early as October. If the changes go through, bar staff will have to develop a detailed implementation plan defining eligible pro bono work and whether attorneys coming into California from other states would have to meet the 50-hour rule, Dunn said. Those details would also be subject to board approval.

"I hate to be in the business of predicting, but it does seem that our board is very positive about the three recommendations," Dunn said.

OneJustice, a group that helps coordinate and support more than 100 nonprofit legal organizations throughout California, would welcome a pro bono requirement for new lawyers, executive director Julia Wilson said. "Overall we’re very supportive of the idea. Getting more law students involved in pro bono is absolutely part of the puzzle of addressing the justice gap."

That said, the requirement would add a burden for legal services providers to supervise the law students and ensure the quality of their services, Wilson said. OneJustice hopes the state bar will provide financial support to help organizations like hers.

Any new pro bono requirement would also come with a time cost for students, said Santa Clara University School of Law dean Donald Polden, and it’s not clear what type of legal work would qualify.

"What is pro bono? Is it cleaning up a California beach though an environmental law group, or is it actually sitting down with clients and addressing their legal problems?" he said. "The bar needs to focus on what problem they are trying to address."

DOUBTS IN NEW JERSEY

The pro bono task force created last fall by the New Jersey Supreme Court is nearing the end of its work, said Judge Glenn Grant, who is leading the task force and serves as the acting administrative director of the courts. He declined to comment on the task force’s conclusions, but said its report would be issued by early May. The panel has been ­soliciting comments from judges, attorneys, law deans and other stakeholders. One organization that hasn’t been supportive of the idea is the New Jersey State Bar Association, which passed a resolution opposing any pro bono mandate.

The resolution says that the state’s three law schools already provide law students with real-world practice experience and impress upon them the necessity of pro bono work. It argues that any such mandate is "unnecessary, unworkable and an affront to consumers who expect experienced practitioners to provide legal services."

A report by the Connecticut Judicial Branch’s Access to Justice Commission also recommends that the state create a task force to consider a pro bono mandate, but judicial leaders were inclined against the idea, said Superior Court Judge William Bright Jr., chairman of the judicial branch’s pro bono committee. "We’re probably not going to pursue that right now," Bright said. "I think we want to take a more measured approach and work with the individual law schools to look for ways to get students involved in pro bono."

Some pro bono advocates had hoped that the American Bar Association would take the lead on incorporating a 50-hour requirement into its law school accreditation standards. Several legal leaders and organizations sent a letter in November to the ABA committee overseeing an update of the accreditation standards, arguing such a requirement would ensure uniformity and consistency among the states. However, the idea gained little traction among the ABA committee members, who said that mandating pro bono hours falls outside the scope of its accreditor role.

University of Southern California Gould School of Law dean Robert Rasmussen is among those who would rather see a national standard established through the ABA. "I have concerns about creating a lot of different requirements for admittance in different states," said Rasmussen, who added that a 50-hour mandate would be fairly easy for most USC law students to fulfill.

"If California does something, and Illinois does something different, and D.C. has something else, it becomes a nightmare for students."

The mandate appears to have piqued the interest of judicial leaders across the country. Lippman said he has spoken with at least 20 other chief justices about New York’s rule. He gave a presentation about the mandate during a conference for chief justices in January.

"I laid out for everyone what we had done, how we were doing it and why I thought it was important," Lippman said.

"There was a great deal of interest among the chiefs, virtually across the board. It’s hard to say who is ready to spring into action, but I think there will be states that join up with us shortly. Sometimes you have to be bold and do what you think is necessary to achieve equal justice for all."

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.