Determined to tackle the "justice gap" that leaves so many people without access to legal services, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman last year devised a novel solution. He proposed that all law students who want to be admitted to the bar in New York perform 50 hours of pro bono service in law school. That rule was adopted by the other judges on New York's highest court.
The justice gap is "a crisis in this country that needs to be addressed," says Lippman, adding that the private bar's volunteer efforts are essential. With the New York State Bar Association signaling its opposition to mandatory pro bono for lawyers, Lippman turned his sights on the next generation in law school. "I want to get into their DNA the idea that if you want to be a lawyer, you have to embrace the core values of the profession," he says. "More than anything else, that means services to others."
Lippman knew his idea would meet with resistance, and not all law schools reacted enthusiastically. But he pushed ahead. "I needed to exercise leadership and not take a public opinion poll on whether this is a good idea," he explains.
The 50-hour rule will apply to students who graduate next year; they can satisfy the requirement in several ways, including law school clinics or internships at nonprofit legal groups. The idea is spreading, with New Jersey and California moving toward similar changes.
"It's genius," says Alan Levine of Cooley, who served on an advisory committee for the implementation of this rule. "His innovation was the creation of a new generation of lawyers who won't be unalterably opposed to mandatory pro bono."
Esther Lardent of the Pro Bono Institute says Lippman's most profound innovation goes beyond this rule or any of his other groundbreaking ideas, such as his ongoing effort to hold fewer low-level criminal defendants on bail. "He has literally transformed the role of judges and the court," she says. Instead of viewing his job as an administrator who stays aloof from controversy, Lippman has confronted pressing issues. "He has this sense of optimism: 'Yes, we can change things, and we have to take bold action,' " Lardent says.