ALBANY - Starting next year, prospective lawyers must show that they have performed at least 50 hours of law-related pro bono service before being admitted to the New York state bar, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced yesterday.
The chief judge said in his annual Law Day address at the Court of Appeals that the requirement would serve a two-fold purpose: It would address the large, unmet need for lawyers to represent the poor and it would inculcate in aspiring lawyers a career-long duty to serve the public.
“If pro bono is a core value of our profession, and it is—and if we aspire for all practicing attorneys to devote a meaningful portion of their time to public service, and they should—these ideals ought to be instilled from the start, when one first aspires to be a member of the profession,” Lippman said to a crowd of judges, lawyers and legislators.
“We think that if you want that privilege, that honor of practicing law in the state of New York…then you are going to have to demonstrate that you believe in our values,” he said at a meeting with reporters following his speech.
He called entry into the New York state bar the “most coveted” of all licenses to practice in the country.
The chief judge said the requirement will be the first of its kind in the country for admission to a state bar, and he hopes that other states will follow its lead because the inadequacy of available representation for the poor is a problem nationwide.
“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,” Lippman said in his speech.
About 10,000 new lawyers are admitted to New York’s bar each year.
The requirement for mandatory pro bono will not extend to the approximately 160,000 lawyers the American Bar Association estimates are already admitted to the state bar and living in New York.
“My belief is that mandatory pro bono for the entire bar is not workable because there are so many different categories of lawyers, so much different geography, lawyers who can’t make a living on what they are doing now,” he said.
The chief judge also said there have been legal questions raised about mandating attorneys’ participation in a non-compensated pro bono program.
However, Lippman suggested that the state’s attorneys already donate more than 2 million hours of their time each year to pro bono.
At Law Day festivities yesterday in Albany, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, right, shakes hands with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver while Attorney General Eric Schneiderman greets Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings and Vincent E. Doyle III, president of the New York State Bar Association, looks on. Photo by Tim Roske.
“I believe that they’ve stepped up to the plate, whether it’s the Empire State Program, the Counsel Program the state bar does, whether it is the emeritus program that we do, whether it’s local bar associations all across the state,” he said in his speech. “The bar has overwhelmingly volunteered their time for pro bono services.”
As briefly outlined in the speech at Court of Appeals Hall in Albany, prospective lawyers will be required to submit an affidavit describing the nature and the dates and hours of their pro bono activities and the organization and individual lawyer who supervised them.
It will be up to the four Committees on Character and Fitness within the Appellate Division departments to ensure that applicants have properly completed their pro bono requirement.
Delaying implementation of the new requirement until 2013 will give next year’s candidates for admission time to meet the new pre-requisite, according to Lippman.
He told reporters that a “little flexibility” will be built into the Appellate Division rules to allow applicants to demonstrate that they could not fulfill the pro bono requirement in New York, but had done so in their home states or native countries.
“We’re not going to diminish doing pro bono in Connecticut or Arizona,” the judge said. “But for the most part, that pro bono work will be in the state of New York.”
Lippman said the four presiding justices, who must approve the new requirement, have “fully embraced” the plan.
Steven Banks, attorney-in-charge for the Legal Aid Society in New York City, endorsed the plan. He said his group uses about 1,500 legal volunteers a year, yet continues to turn away eight or nine out of every 10 people who seek assistance.
Banks said the Legal Aid Society could use the pro bono services of prospective lawyers on both the civil and criminal sides.
Legal services providers have long warned of a chronic shortage of lawyers available to represent low-income New Yorkers in legal matters such as foreclosures, evictions and Family Court proceedings. The poor economy has only made the problem worse, they say.
A Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services created by Lippman has estimated that the legal needs of only about one in five low-income New Yorkers, at best, are being served.
The judiciary put $25 million in the current 2012-13 state budget for civil legal services funding, twice as much as the previous fiscal year. It also included a separate $15 million in the budget for programs funded through the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund.
Lippman said most applicants will meet the pro bono work requirement with civil providers, but said criminal matters would also be acceptable.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who also spoke at the Law Day ceremony, called the pro bono requirement a “brilliant and innovative proposal.”
He said that if he has learned one thing from his efforts at trying to prevent foreclosures since becoming attorney general, it is the crucial nature of having someone with legal knowledge advocating for property owners.
“If you can get a lawyer and you can get yourself in court, you can probably never be foreclosed on,” Schneiderman said.
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