Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, center, receives applause after delivering his State of the Judiciary address at the Court of Appeals in Albany, on Tuesday.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, center, receives applause after delivering his State of the Judiciary address at the Court of Appeals in Albany, on Tuesday. (Tim Roske)

ALBANY – Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman proposed Tuesday allowing third-year law students to volunteer as “Pro Bono Scholars” who would dedicate a large part of their final semester to serving low-income clients in return for accelerated admission to the bar.

The program was the centerpiece of the chief judge’s annual State of the Judiciary address at the Court of Appeals in Albany.

In addition to the Pro Bono Scholars program, Lippman announced several other initiatives that the Unified Court System will undertake this year:

• Launching a pilot program so non-lawyers can help low-income clients navigate the court system.

• Offering legislation to automatically expunge the criminal records of some offenders and to authorize judges to wipe clean the records of others.

• Creating special court parts in every county to preside over both felony and misdemeanor driving-while-intoxicated cases.

See text of the speech.

Lippman also put in plugs for his earlier proposals: adding 20 new Family Court judges beginning Jan. 1, 2015; raising the age of criminality for non-violent young offenders to 18 from 16; and ending the jailing of suspects who are unable to pay minimal bail after arrests on minor, non-violent charges.

As for his newest proposal, Lippman said the Pro Bono Scholars program would help close a “gaping disconnect” between poor people who cannot afford legal services and new or soon-to-be lawyers who can’t find jobs.

Rather than discard the frequently-criticized third year of law school, “Why not give law students choices that can make all three years of law school more meaningful and worthwhile?” the chief judge asked an audience of lawyers, judges and legislators.

“The impact on closing the justice gap would be dramatic and, if replicated around the country, multiplied many times over, ushering in a new era in the legal profession and revitalizing and reforming legal education to adapt to society’s changing needs,” Lippman said.

The program for the third-year law students is an outgrowth of the courts’ mandate that all those seeking admission to the bar in New York beginning Jan. 1, 2015, have performed at least 50 hours of pro bono service within the previous three years.

Pro Bono Scholars would perform at least 500 hours, Lippman said.

Under the plan, students would submit applications for the program at the end of their second year in law school. After conclusion of the first semester of their third year, scholars would begin an intensive preparation period for the state bar examination, which they take in February.

Following the exam, the students would devote their time to pro bono programs offered by law schools and their clinics or by legal services providers and law firms working with the schools.

Lippman said that in addition to taking the bar exam in February, students would be put on an accelerated schedule for a character and fitness review that would allow those who successfully complete the program to pave their way to admission to the bar.

Typically, law students graduating in May take the bar exam in July and learn the results in November. Those who pass may not be admitted until several months after that, following fitness committee interviews.

Lippman said Victoria Graffeo, associate judge of the Court of Appeals, was sending letters Tuesday to the deans of all 15 law schools in New York state asking them to participate in an advisory committee for the Pro Bono Scholars program that she will head.

At the same time, Lippman said, Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti will form a task force with representatives of legal services providers and law firms willing to become partners with law schools on pro bono projects. The chief judge said he has asked the presidents of both the New York State Bar Association the New York City Bar to participate.

Lippman acknowledged that it may take some time to establish the framework and guidelines for the new program. He said he was unsure how many students would sign up for the first class of scholars, which the state wants to bring in for the spring 2015 semester.

Graffeo said law schools would voluntarily participate in the program and said schools would likely take part to help their students.

Albany Law School Dean Penelope Andrews, who attended Lippman’s address, said afterward that she was generally supportive of Lippman’s plan. She said there could be “challenges” in implementing the program and still making it conform with rules guiding law school curriculum from the American Bar Association.

Andrews said it will be a “powerful incentive” for some students to participate in the pro bono program if they can enter the job market a half year sooner than most of their classmates.

“I am not sure it will be an incentive for all students who have different career paths,” she said. “Particularly students who choose to use a law degree to pursue careers in finance or other fields. But I think those committed to public service and the traditional legal service providers, they would find this very exciting.”

Carey Dunne, the president of the New York City Bar Association, said his group “applauds” Lippman for the pro bono plan.

“This initiative is consistent with the recommendations in the recent report of the City Bar’s Task Force on New Lawyers in a Changing Profession, which urged that law schools seek to provide ‘practice ready’ lawyers and that the third year of law school provide practical experience or otherwise better prepare graduates for their legal careers,” Dunne said in a statement Tuesday.

Lippman noted that the state Board of Law Examiners has already approved the idea of law students taking the bar exam early in New York, before they graduate.

Prudenti said she has been in contact with the Appellate Division’s presiding justices, who have assured her that they will expedite the character and fitness reviews of those who participate in the Pro Bono Scholars program.

Court Procedures

The chief judge also detailed efforts aimed at improving the court system.

Lippman said a pilot program allowing non-lawyers to assist people who are unrepresented in legal matters will begin this month in Housing Court in Brooklyn and in consumer debt cases in Brooklyn and the Bronx (NYLJ, May 13, 2013).

The “navigators” will aid litigants with paperwork, find interpreters where necessary and explain the legal process.

For the first time, the aides will be allowed to stand by litigants during court appearances, Lippman said. Though they won’t be allowed to address the court, he said, the aides will be able to answer judges’ questions and provide “moral support” to litigants.

Roger Maldonado of Balber Pickard Maldonado & Van Der Tuin in Manhattan said the “navigators” will be supervised by groups that provide services to the poor, such as University Settlement in Manhattan.

Maldonado co-chaired a task force that developed the program for non-lawyers at Lippman’s behest, along with Fern Schair of the Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham University Law School (NYLJ, May 29, 2013).

Lippman also said he will submit legislation that would automatically expunge the record of a misdemeanor conviction if an offender has gone seven years without being re-arrested. The legislation also would allow courts, in the interest of justice, to expunge records of nonviolent felonies if there has been no rearrest in 10 years.

The expungement policies would not apply to sex offenses, public corruption cases and DWI-related offenses, the chief judge said.

Regardless of how that legislation ends, the chief judge said he has ordered that, as of April 1, the Office of Court Administration will not provide data on misdemeanor convictions of individuals who have no other previous criminal convictions and who have not been re-arrested within 10 years of the date of their convictions.

An isolated conviction for a minor offense should not deprive someone of a “second chance for a promising future,” he said.

Additionally, Lippman will designate judges in each county to hear all felony and misdemeanor DWI cases, an approach that would allow the courts to develop judges with special expertise on impaired driving and strategies to combat it.

“As experts have recognized, a key component of achieving deterrence in DWI cases is certain, consistent and coordinated sentencing,” Lippman said.