ALBANY – New York lawyers must disclose on their biennial registration forms how many pro bono hours they provided and the amount of financial contributions they made to pro bono programs during the previous two years.
The new reporting requirements of Part 118 and Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct were approved by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and the presiding justices of the Appellate Division’s four departments on April 23 and went into effect yesterday (See Announcement).
Lippman’s Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services recommended increasing the voluntary pro bono goal for lawyers in the state to 50 hours a year from 20 (NYLJ, Dec. 7, 2012). That proposal was also implemented yesterday.
In an interview with reporters following his Law Day address yesterday at the Court of Appeals in Albany, Lippman denied that the new reporting requirement is a prelude to the imposition of mandatory pro bono, which some bar groups and individual lawyers have opposed for years.
Lippman said studies by the state and the American Bar Association indicate that lawyers in New York contribute a total of about 2.5 million pro bono hours a year and that the typical lawyer provides about 66 hours of free legal services for poor clients.
"The bar has done a great job," Lippman said yesterday. "They are rising to the occasion. I have no intention of doing mandatory pro bono because the bar is doing their job."
He added, "My every instinct is not to do mandatory pro bono. This is not a nose-under-the-tent kind of an approach."
But he said the mandatory reporting will provide court administrators with by far the clearest picture yet of the extent to which lawyers in New York are performing pro bono or giving money to pro bono providers.
"We’ll really have the numbers and know what the level of participation is in pro bono," Lippman said.
The reporting requirement could cause lawyers to improve their pro bono contributions in two ways, the chief judge said, directly, by devoting more time to serving poor clients, and indirectly, through enhanced donations to pro bono providers.
Lippman added that if attorneys are too busy practicing, then it would be a "good thing" to remind them of another means of meeting their pro bono obligation, through contributions.
"I think it is a moral and an ethical obligation. I think it’s not unreasonable to say, ‘Gee, you know, I don’t have the time but I do want to make the contribution,’" he said.
Lippman said pro bono contributions went up, both through lawyers donating more of their time and their money, in states where a reporting requirement has been implemented.
His taskforce on expanding access to civil legal services found that seven other states require lawyers to report pro bono hours.
The taskforce said Illinois, for instance, has seen annual pro bono hours increase by about 10 percent since that state adopted a self-reporting system in 2007. Florida, whose pro bono reporting system went into effect in 1993, has experienced a nearly 100 percent increase in pro bono contributions in the past 20 years.
Increasing the state’s voluntary pro bono goal to 50 hours a year would also complement a new requirement that those applying for admission in New York must have completed 50 hours of pro bono service (NYLJ, Sept. 20, 2012). All new candidates for the bar beginning in 2015 must meet that requirement.
Reaction to the reporting requirement was mixed yesterday.
New York State Bar President Seymour James Jr., who also spoke at the Law Day ceremony in Albany, acknowledged that it has been a "concern" of some of his members that mandating reporting of lawyers’ pro bono activities will lead to state-ordered performance of mandatory pro bono.
"The chief judge has assured us and said publicly in convincing terms that he does not intend to impose mandatory pro bono," said James, who is head of criminal practice at the Legal Aid Society.
Carey Dunne, president of the New York City Bar, said the city bar is fully supportive of the reporting initiative.
"It presents a minimal burden on practicing lawyers," said Dunne, a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell.
Marian Rice, the president of the Nassau County Bar Association, criticized Lippman for not "seeking the input and collective ideas" of the state’s attorneys before implementing the reporting requirement.
"The charitable efforts of these attorneys should not be subject to mandatory disclosure," Rice said in a statement. "It is wrong to legislate charity; and charity that takes place under compulsion of public disclosure is hardly charity at all."
Richard Asche, a partner at two-attorney litigation firm Litman, Asche & Gioiella, said he sees the new rule as a precursor to require pro bono work, which he would support if the right structure were in place.
However, Asche said the information should not become public if it is meant to shame lawyers who do not pitch in as much as their colleagues in pro bono efforts.
"I don’t really think it’s anyone’s business but mine how I choose to contribute to society. If I want to publicize it, I will," Asche said. "It’s an intrusion unless it’s done for a purpose of gathering information for future action."
Angela Siegel, a Garden City solo practitioner focusing on estate planning, called the disclosure "a waste of paperwork" and "just one more thing I have to fill out."
"It’s certainly not going to affect whether I do pro bono work," said Siegel, adding that the disclosure is "an intrusion into privacy and a first step to mandatory pro bono."
David Brill, president of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Greater New York Chapter, said some lawyers may bristle but "the data shows that the reporting requirements do net an increase in pro bono service."
"Given the substantial need in the community, I’d say that any initiative that encourages pro bono work is a worthy one," he said.
Jay Fialkoff, managing partner at Moses & Singer, said he fully supports the new reporting requirements and increasing the number of recommended pro bono hours to 50. He believes the new rules will increase the number of pro bono hours.
"When attention is focused on something, people tend to do it," Fialkoff said. "I don’t think it’s a privacy issue."
Michael Grohman, head of Duane Morris’ New York office, said the new rules appear to be a step toward mandatory pro bono, which he supports.
"If you look at the balancing act of what we may be disclosing or divulging versus the ultimate increased benefit to so many who can’t get this help by themselves, then the equities are strongly in favor of the underserved," he said.
Lippman announced the pro bono disclosure rule in his 2013 State of the Judiciary address in February (NYLJ, Feb. 6).
Lawyers must reregister every two years and pay a $375 fee in order to practice law in New York.