New York's new rule requiring 50 hours of pro bono service prior to admission to the bar threatens to displace small firm and solo practitioners out of even more areas previously handled by lawyers, albeit for smaller fees.
For example, a prominent New York firm is aiming to send junior associates out to Long Island and the other boroughs to handle child support collection cases to satisfy its pro bono mandates.
At first glance, the proposal seems a good idea and one beneficial to the public's interest. After all, child support non-payment is an inherent problem and enforcing child support obligations is an enormous task for overworked Family Court support magistrates.
Junior associates need the pro bono hours prior to becoming lawyers, and in any event, New York's new rules also now require voluntary disclosure of pro bono hours (NYLJ, May 1, 2013). Law firms like to have their associates garner some kind of courtroom experience (and since the typical large firm does not allow a first-year to even sniff a courtroom), so why not let them get some experience at no risk to the firm.
But a child support nonpayment proceeding is precisely the type of matter that, although strictly regimented and governed by statute, requires skill and institutional knowledge to successfully handle.
Typically, Legal Aid or another similar organization is assigned to represent the debtor, while the creditor proceeds either with the assistance of a County Attorney or a private lawyer, sometimes pro se. Most cases settle; some go to a hearing, where incarceration (after a finding of willful nonpayment) is sometimes ordered. To be sure, a large number of private attorneys represent both debtors and creditors in child support proceeding, although for typically low-range fees.
But flooding the market with attorneys-to-be who simply need to get their pro bono hours out of the way is inviting problems for nearly every one involved. The plan (as it stands now) is for the firm's associates to only represent child support creditors, rather than defend debtors. Assuming the average child support case takes approximately 10 hours (way less in some cases), one associate would need to handle five such cases prior to satisfying the pro bono requirement for admission; thereafter, whatever they felt was appropriate, given the firm's internal requirements and so on.
In any event, at least five child support cases that previously at least stood a chance to go to private counsel are now off the market (extrapolate further for the real numbers); and, since malpractice is not a concern, meaningful and effective representation are even less of a worry. The famous maxim "charity is the opposite of justice" comes to mind, as implementation of the pro bono rule may ensure that neither one is served.
Vesselin Mitev is the chief associate for litigation firm John Ray & Associates, with offices in Manhattan and Long Island.