New York’s new requirement for pro bono work as a condition for admission to the bar should be a model for other states to copy. Last May, Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of New York, announced this proposal. On September 12, the New York Court of Appeals adopted a requirement that, effective January 1, 2015, admission to the New York bar will require an applicant having completed 50 hours of pro bono service. This is to be applauded: Pro bono work helps to meet the enormous unmet demand for legal services, provides law students valuable legal training and hopefully instills a lifelong habit of public service.
At a recent meeting, an American Bar Association committee considering possible changes to accreditation standards seemed unreceptive to the idea of requiring all law schools to insist on 50 hours of pro bono work from their students. But that won’t matter if states follow New York’s lead and require pro bono work as a condition for admission to the bar.
Many law schools already strongly encourage pro bono work by law students and some require it. Pro bono work by law students serves many purposes. It helps to provide legal services to those who cannot afford them. Each year, New York admits 10,000 new lawyers. Requiring 50 hours of pro bono work from each provides 500,000 hours of additional legal services. As Lippman noted, “If every state in the country were to join us in taking up this mantle, that would mean at least two and a half million hours of additional pro bono work — what a positive impact on persons of limited means, communities and organizations that would gain from this infusion of pro bono work.”
Additionally, it provides students essential training. There is no other way to learn to practice law except to do it. It is unthinkable that medical schools would graduate medical students who had never seen patients. Yet, most law students graduate without ever having met a client. Pro bono work under the supervision of a lawyer provides important practical experience.
The hope, too, is that having begun doing pro bono work in law school, students will be more likely to do so throughout their careers as attorneys. Having seen the great rewards of such efforts makes it all the more likely that we will be training a generation of lawyers with a greater commitment to doing such work.
Critics have said the pro bono requirement is too onerous for law students. This objection is meritless. At the University of California, Irvine School of Law all second- and third-year students are expected to do at least 50 hours of pro bono work per year. Ninety-eight percent of the class that graduated last May participated in our pro bono program, and they averaged more than 100 hours of pro bono work each. This was in addition to their participating in a legal clinic, which is required for graduation at UCI Law School. Last year, 90 percent of the first-year class did pro bono work despite the demands inherent to the first year of legal study.
Critics have said that law students are not competent to perform pro bono work. This is wrong. Our students successfully represented an Iraqi refugee in immigration court, foster families in administrative hearings and people in court seeking public access to beaches. Students spent their winter vacations in Mississippi working on reopening schools and obtaining housing for hurricane and oil spill victims. In our clinics, students litigated and won cases in the federal court of appeals and in many other tribunals, and they negotiated deals to protect impoverished communities. With supervision, law students can do extraordinarily high-quality legal work.
Law schools can do an enormous amount to encourage and facilitate pro bono work. But they cannot do it alone. The single best way to encourage pro bono work by law students is to have future employers — judges, law firms, government agencies, public interest offices — look to pro bono work in law school as a factor in their hiring decisions. If students knew that employers looked not only at their grades and their being on law review and their doing moot court, but also at their pro bono service, far more students would engage in such activity at a much greater level.
A requirement for bar admission sends a powerful message to all lawyers that pro bono work matters. It will force students to begin thinking about pro bono work from their first days of law school. There are minimal costs to administering such a requirement and enormous gains.
The legal profession has a monopoly on providing legal services and the duty to help those who cannot afford legal services. All law students and lawyers should be expected to do pro bono work. The New York requirement should be a model for state bars across the country.
Erwin Chemerinsky is dean and distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.