Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals has set off something of a firestorm by proposing a rule that 50 hours of mandatory pro bono be a part of the admission requirements for New York lawyers. His proposal is both a pragmatic (though heavy-handed) solution to a pressing need and a cynical recognition that new admittees really have no say in setting the standards by which they will get (or be denied) licenses.
In an attempt to gauge the reaction of law students to this proposal, I went to Above the Law, a blog written by and focused on law students and young lawyers. ATL can be a really fun eye into what it is like to be a 20-something law student. From my past visits to the site, I sense that sex and alcohol remain a focus of many aspiring lawyers. They also are very concerned with the job environment, and many are very angry at the debt they have incurred without any promise of a reasonable return on their investments.
The ATL comments on Lippman’s proposal were as I expected. A few folks thought that this was a good idea because law and lawyering is supposed to be about helping people. Others groused that it was just a politically correct answer to a problem that they had not created, foist on a population of bar applicants who have no say in the matter. Some felt that it might give them some experience which could be useful is finding a job. And a few thought that because Lippman proposes giving credit for pro bono work done in law school, this might force schools to make the third-year experience more relevant to practice. I agree with all of them.
I recently wrote about my alma mater, UConn Law, and its drift into Tier II. I described the 2L and 3L students as "bright and bored." Some faculty objected that I had slandered a group of good kids trying hard to learn the law and doing good work in clinics and in pro bono programs. Yet I heard from many students and recent grads who felt that I was right and that I understood their pain. (For the record, I intended no disrespect. I really think these students are our best hope. I would not have said anything if I did not think they held a key to solving some real problems facing the bar and the bench.)
It is kind of an open secret in legal education that, outside of clinical experiences, most 3L’s are just treading water. I have seen it called the "3L ennui." I just taught ethics to a really smart group of 2L and 3L folks at UConn. I apologized at the end of the class that their experience in learning this material, which I view as the air that lawyers breathe, was akin to me trying to teach them basketball by showing films and giving lectures and then flipping them the ball for a game for which they would be scored. One fellow in the back boomed out, "Welcome to law school, professor!"
There has always been a gap between what is taught in school and what is learned in practice. In the past, firms bridged that gap and did a very good job of it. A few years ago, some state bars began creating formal "bridge the gap" programs for those not lucky enough or not inclined to have the firm experience. Now, many firms have drastically cut back on hiring and training new grads. While there is a hot market for associates with three to five years of experience, there is virtually no market for many newly graduated lawyers. The "gap" has gotten exponentially greater.
I haven’t spoken to Judge Lippman, but my guess is that he has experienced the same thing I did every week when I looked out on my class of law students and saw a pool of talent and energy that could solve many problems if only they could be given an opportunity. Some law schools have opened law firms serving the poor and people of limited means. A cynic would say that they are hiring their own grads to game the U.S. News ratings. Others would say this is a perfect example of a market solution at work.
Lippman’s proposal is a blunt tool, but tapping into the incredible pool of talent in these young folks is the right idea.
Mark DuBois, the former chief disciplinary counsel for Connecticut, is now an attorney at the New London firm of Geraghty & Bonnano.