In an effort to beef up the pro bono contributions of in-house counsel, increase the availability of legal services to those in need and address some nagging questions that may impede the ability of corporate attorneys to pitch in, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has directed a statewide committee to promptly explore the issues.
Lippman announced on Wednesday the formation of a committee chaired by Court of Appeals Judge Victoria Graffeo and indicated he is looking for recommendations before the year is out. It is expected that the Advisory Committee on Pro Bono Service by In-House Counsel will present proposals to the Administrative Board of the Courts this fall.
"Regrettably, the civil legal service needs of our most vulnerable New Yorkers continue to outpace the availability of resources," Lippman said in announcing the committee, which "will explore rule changes and other strategies that most appropriately and effectively leverage the expertise of the talented cadre of in-house counsel in our aim to broaden the state's pro bono efforts."
Graffeo said she is hoping "to bridge the state's justice gap by looking to a previously untapped resource," in-house counsel, who "bring an impressive array of legal skills and experience."
As a first step, the committee will begin an initiative to encourage all in-house lawyers who are not admitted in New York to register under Part 522 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals.
That rule allows attorneys who are admitted elsewhere to provide legal services exclusively to their employer in New York if they register with the Appellate Division. However, the rule does not permit the lawyers to do unsupervised pro bono work.
Lippman's Taskforce to Expand Civil Legal Services in New York and the New York State Bar Association have called for revisions to the practice rules that would allow in-house counsel in New York to contribute to the pro bono effort.
In a report last year, the state bar said in-house counsel should be permitted to engage in pro bono services, subject to the same ethical restrictions that apply to attorneys licensed in this state.
"New York should amend its practice rules to permit registered in-house counsel to provide pro bono services in addition to working for their employer," the state bar said in its report. "In-house counsel should be freed in most representations from cumbersome requirements mandating that registered in-house counsel be supervised by locally licensed attorneys or work with an approved organization."
The state bar said that requiring in-house attorneys, who are already required to provide competent representation, to "work under the supervision of another is an unnecessary limit on services that are in desperate need."
David Brill, executive vice president and general counsel at American Stock Transfer & Trust Co. and president of the Greater New York chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, said in an interview Wednesday that "there is an obvious need for pro bono legal services, a big delta between the number of indigent clients and the legal resources available to them."
Brill, a member of the new committee, said his pro bono efforts have not been impacted by current restrictions since he is admitted in New York. But he said impediments have made it difficult for other in-house counsel, who are not licensed to practice here, to contribute.
"This is really an opportunity to expand the ability of in-house counsel to do pro bono work, and to remove some of the barriers," Brill said. "I am hoping that the committee's work will heighten awareness of the need for pro bono work in New York and encourage greater participation in serving a needy populace."
David Mowry, senior counsel at the Xerox Corp. in Rochester and president of the upstate chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, said there are more than 2 million New Yorkers whose civil legal needs are not met. He said the roughly 9,000 in-house counsel around the state could make a considerable contribution.
"Judge Graffeo and Judge Lippman believe, correctly so, that in-house counsel may be an untapped resource for pro bono work, given the number of in-house counsel and the number of unserved people," said Mowry, a member of the new advisory committee.
John Caher is a reporter for the New York Law Journal, a Legal affiliate