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Pennsylvania law students in their final year of school will have a mandatory program to attend in order to become licensed to practice, beginning next year. The program, called “Bridge the Gap,” attempts to do just that — to reach students between graduation time and bar admission — and teach them how to avoid disciplinary action resulting from mistakes that are often inadvertent. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro is spearheading the program. The justice has regularly met with representatives from the Pennsylvania Continuing Legal Education Board, the state’s Disciplinary Board and the Pennsylvania State Board of Law Examiners for about a year to develop the curriculum and work out its logistics. Nigro said it is vital to design a program for young lawyers that addresses the dos and don’ts of practice before they hang up their shingles. “When they get out in practice, all it may take is one mistake to end the career of someone who’s 25 or 26 years old with a disbarment,” said Nigro. “We’re trying to get to them before that happens.” The program will consist of an eight-hour day on a Saturday, so as not to interfere with classes. The curriculum is still being finalized, but it will include a mixture of lecture and videotaped vignettes of typical mistakes lawyers can make that warrant disciplinary action. The program content will track most professional responsibility course curricula, including accepting, declining and understanding the scope of representation; how to handle money matters like fee disputes, trust accounts and attorney liens; how to manage a law practice; and how to avoid prohibited advertising and solicitation. One additional topic discussed in Bridge the Gap, but not necessarily covered in law school classes, will be resources for attorneys. Students will receive information on where they can get help if they are in crisis. Some examples of this are substance abuse or emotional problems, Nigro said. Some attorneys may think this all sounds reminiscent of CLE programs. Why not simply have new lawyers attend CLE? Nigro said in addition to the crucial issue of timing discussed earlier, the Supreme Court wanted to maintain control over the course content. “If we relegated this to CLE, we couldn’t do that,” he said. “We want to make sure students receive information we believe is important.” COST The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, state bar association, Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners and others have joined in cooperation to produce Bridge the Gap at no cost to students. “There are three elements to the program that will incur cost,” said Nigro. “Those would be the venues, the teachers and the course materials. We have worked it out so that the seven [Pennsylvania] law schools will donate the space, various members of the bar will be teaching the classes, and there is sufficient funding in the Disciplinary Board budget to create the materials. “After the video vignettes are taped, we plan to obtain the license to the material, so that we own it outright, and the cost will just be a one-time investment. I think the videotape medium is a great way for students to learn, and it’ll break up the lectures,” he said. Bar members who teach the class will receive CLE credit for their time, Nigro said. RESULTS Nigro pointed out that, unlike CLE, Bridge the Gap will not only require people to attend, but also will administer a multiple-choice test of 25 questions at its conclusion. “One thing we don’t want,” he said, “is to have people coming in and reading the newspaper, as sometimes happens in CLE.” And the class, plus a passing score on the test, will be a prerequisite to sitting for the bar exam. That presents an issue for out-of-state students who will come to Pennsylvania to practice. “We are devising ways that students who attend out-of-state law schools, but intend to sit for our bar exam, will be able to have the materials at their school,” said Nigro. NOT JUST FOR STUDENTS The Bridge the Gap class and exam will also be required of any practitioner coming to Pennsylvania from another state who will sit for the state bar exam, said Nigro. “The longer they’ve been out of school, the more they might need it,” he said. At issue with the disciplinary board, Nigro added, is a general dissatisfaction of the public with lawyers and the need to counteract that perception with better-behaved lawyers. “The most common complaint the board hears is, ‘my lawyer never calls me back,’” Nigro said. “I think this program will ultimately change that. Most of the time, when attorneys trigger the disciplinary process, it is due to silly mistakes that can be avoided if lawyers are well-informed early on, Nigro said. “I am told that no less than 20 attorneys a year actually send in their annual fee to the disciplinary board written on a check from their escrow account,” said Nigro. “So of course, the board investigates it, and they are called in. If we can save things like that from happening, then this program is worth it,” he said. New lawyers who plan to open a solo practice will benefit significantly from the program, Nigro said. “There are more lawyers than ever in the state now, but there’s less work to go around,” he said. “So you’ll find a young lawyer who really should refer a case out to someone more seasoned but who wants to hang onto the case because he or she has to pay the bills. That’s what we want to prevent. We want the public to get the best representation it can.” Nigro acknowledged there is a catch-22 in that sentiment. “Of course, there is that old expression that ‘you need experience to become seasoned, and how can you do that if you don’t take a case?’ Lawyers just need to know when to call in help and not be afraid to ask questions. That’s another mistake too many of them make,” he said. And that mistake can have permanent consequences. “Most lawyers who become dually licensed in New Jersey and here — which is quite popular — don’t realize that if New Jersey disbars them, Pennsylvania honors that,” said Nigro. “Since New Jersey virtually has lifetime disbarment, that effectively means, so do we,” he said. Whereas Pennsylvania allows a disbarred lawyer to petition the court for reinstatement after five years, New Jersey has all but refused people to do so, and that means Pennsylvania has no leeway to allow reinstatement after a New Jersey disbarment, he said. “It is a serious thing,” Nigro said. “We are going to tell students, don’t be cavalier.”

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