ALBANY – Taking aim at one of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's access-to-justice initiatives, the New York State Bar Association has denounced a new rule requiring attorneys to disclose pro bono *service."
State bar president David Schraver complained in a letter Wednesday to Lippman that the new rule will have a "coercive effect" on lawyers that "dilutes the voluntary nature" of their donations of time and money.
"We very strongly believe that lawyers should provide pro bono service because they recognize the critical importance of access to justice and lawyers' unique ability to assist—not because they feel pressured into doing so," he said.
Since May 1, lawyers have been required to include on their biennial registration form their hours of pro bono work and the amount of any financial contribution to legal services organizations. The information is available to the public.
Lippman says the state needs the information to better gauge how much pro bono work lawyers are donating and how large is the "access-to-justice gap" among low income New Yorkers who cannot afford a lawyer (NYLJ, June 19).
Schraver reminded Lippman that the state bar's House of Delegates voted in 2004 against mandating pro bono as well as the mandatory disclosure of attorneys' pro bono activities.
Schraver, a partner at Nixon Peabody in Rochester, said in his letter that lawyers consider disclosure and the public availability of that information an "invasion of privacy."
"Lawyers should not be subject to having their personal charitable work and contributions made public; while we recognize the important need for legal services funding, it cannot be achieved through breaching the privacy rights of individuals," Schraver said.
The bar president questioned whether lawyers should be placed in a position of facing disciplinary charges for failure to report voluntary pro bono activities.
Schraver also took the chief judge to task for getting the rules adopted on April 23 by the administrative board of the courts, which is comprised of Lippman and the four presiding Appellate Division justices, "without any opportunity for the organized bar to provide comment or input."
"The bar wants to partner with the courts in making improvements to the legal system and the delivery of legal services," Schraver said. "However, partnership involves communication and consultation, and our members would have expected the court system to provide an opportunity for our input instead of presenting the bar with a final decision."
Schraver said it was the second time in little more than a year that the courts have imposed a requirement when the state bar did not feel its members had been given adequate opportunity to comment.
In 2012, the courts adopted a rule that all prospective lawyers seeking admission to the New York bar beginning on Jan. 1, 2015, have performed at least 50 hours of pro bono service (NYLJ, Sept. 20, 2012).
Lippman declined to comment on the state bar's letter Thursday. Unified Court System spokesman David Bookstaver said the courts would respond to the objections raised by the bar group through the Unified Court System's counsel, John McConnell.
The New York City Bar supports the required reporting but has taken no position on whether the disclosures should be made public, spokesman Eric Friedman said.
The city bar's Committee on Pro Bono and Legal Services praised Lippman for enacting the reporting requirement, calling it a "powerful step in the direction of increased access to justice."
The new reporting requirements are contained in Part 118 and Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The state bar has about 77,000 members. There are about 200,000 lawyers in New York state.
Schraver told the state bar's House of Delegates meeting on Saturday in Cooperstown that concern among members about the reporting requirement was deeper than expected and that the executive committee directed him to express those objections to the chief judge (NYLJ, June 26).
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