Barbara Moses, NYCLA's immediate past president
Barbara Moses, NYCLA’s immediate past president (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

Despite initial concerns throughout the legal profession over New York’s new pro bono requirement for bar admission, law schools say they anticipate few challenges in helping students meet the goal, according to a report by the New York County Lawyers’ Association.

NYCLA reports that New York’s 15 law schools have expanded opportunities for students to perform pro bono since Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced the rule change in May 2012. Under the rule, prospective lawyers must perform at least 50 hours of law-related pro bono in order to be admitted to the bar starting in January 2015. New York is the first state to introduce such a requirement.

The NYCLA report, released Tuesday, found a discrepancy between the way law school administrators and practicing lawyers perceive challenges to implementation.

“I was initially surprised, although on reflection it is not so odd,” said Barbara Moses, NYCLA’s immediate past president, who authorized a task force to prepare the report. “Deans are not very worried and do not see it as a significant burden. It may be that the private bar is overly concerned because they’re not as close to the issue.”

Indeed, the onus has fallen largely on the schools to ensure students find qualifying work through on-campus clinics, nonprofits and legal services groups. None of New York’s law schools reported problems in matching their full-time J.D. students with sufficient pro bono opportunities. At least three schools—Columbia Law School, St. John’s University School of Law and the Touro College Jacob B. Fuchsberg Law Center—already required students to complete at least 50 hours of pro bono before the statewide rule was enacted.

Despite these findings, NYCLA stands firm in its opposition.

“Although much of what we found in the investigations that led to this report assuaged some of the practical concerns NYCLA initially had, NYCLA’s opposition to mandatory pro bono rests in part on broader issues of principle and professionalism,” the report stated.

The bar group has also criticized a separate rule that requires working attorneys to disclose their annual pro bono hours and any charitable contributions to legal services groups every two years (NYLJ, May 29). That mandate went into effect in May 2013, and NYCLA has regarded it as an invasion of lawyers’ privacy.

Both initiatives are part of Lippman’s effort to increase “access to justice” for poor and low-income New Yorkers by encouraging the legal profession to step in and close the so-called justice gap.

Bar applicants who have not met the 50-hour requirement can seek a waiver from the Appellate Division committees on character and fitness. But Lippman has said he does not expect many exceptions will be granted (NYLJ, Oct. 20, 2012).

About 10,000 new lawyers are admitted to the New York bar annually. Because the bar admission process is not complete until several months after the bar exam, the class of 2014 is the first that must perform their 50 hours by early 2015. It will take at least another year to collect data on challenges to implementation, the report said.

NYCLA’s analysis explored the rule’s impact on law schools, the judiciary, legal services organizations, law firms, corporate legal departments and bar associations. Its findings were culled from a survey this spring of 247 stakeholders. One-third said they did not believe there were significant difficulties in providing pro bono opportunities to those not yet admitted to the bar.

Respondents were not without criticism. For example, schools with large LL.M. programs are concerned that students will not have enough time to cram their hours into the one-year programs. New York, unlike many other states, does not require foreign-trained lawyers to obtain a J.D. before getting their LL.M., making it the jurisdiction of choice for many seeking U.S. legal credentials.

“If the 50-hour requirement makes it too difficult, it may well be that New York loses its cachet as the bar admission of choice for foreign-educated lawyers,” Moses said. “That’s speculation, but it might be an unanticipated adverse consequence.”

As a result, the task force recommended that schools monitor declines in LL.M. or part-time enrollees over the next few years.

Among legal employers who have hired or could hire graduates yet to be admitted, larger law firms responding to NYCLA’s survey anticipated fewer difficulties than smaller firms in finding pro bono projects, providing supervision and obtaining insurance coverage. The firms, as well as corporate legal departments, are looking to bar associations and legal services groups to provide opportunities that will help employees satisfy those requirements, the report said. That could place extra burdens on those organizations to train and supervise those volunteers.

Finally, NYCLA recommended that the state judiciary make uniform its rules on student practice orders, which are different across the four Appellate Division departments. That would expand the pool of qualifying pro bono projects, the report stated.