A Supreme Court panel is proposing that candidates for New Jersey bar admission complete 50 hours of volunteer legal work as a prerequisite.
The plan, announced Thursday by the court’s Working Group on the Proposed Pre-admission Pro Bono Requirement [see Notice to the Bar], would become effective in 2015, first applicable to those taking the bar exam that February, and would be completed during or after law school.
The State Bar Association is opposed to the requirement. In a Feb. 15 resolution made public Thursday, the Bar said the plan is "unnecessary, unworkable and an affront to consumers who expect experienced practitioners to provide legal services."
A majority of the working group found that the obligation would help mitigate the need for legal assistance, enhance law students’ education with practical experience, instill a career-long sense of volunteerism and benefit the court system by involving more trained counsel.
"Those who seek to be part of this noble profession have a duty to give back and serve their communities," the panel said.
It found "an extraordinary need for a program of this type" and said the "state’s law schools, as well as other legal entities, have the capacity to provide the oversight and supervision to these aspiring attorneys."
The court requested the evaluation of the concept last year in light of a pre-admission pro bono rule adopted in September 2012 by the New York judiciary.
The court appointed acting Director of the Administrative Office of the Court Judge Glenn Grant as chairman and selected 16 other members. They include the deans of New Jersey’s three law schools, retired Justice Virginia Long, Legal Services president Melville Miller Jr., Volunteer Lawyers for Justice executive director Karen Sacks and representatives of the State Bar.
Legal Services is forced to turn away meritorious cases because of understaffing, and the American Bar Association has identified a significant increase in pro se litigants, the panel said.
It noted that Rule 1:21-3(b) has for decades permitted third-year law students to provide legal services under supervision.
The panel proposed amending Rule 1:27, which governs the qualifications for licensure, and adopting a broad definition of qualifying pro bono work, so long as the work is legal in nature.
It closely mirrors New York’s rule, principally because many bar applicants apply in both states and the requirements should be comparable, the panel said.
Clinical work through law schools in and out of New Jersey, and legal work done for judicial, legislative and executive government entities, including clerkships, would count.
Government work "is work that benefits society as a whole," the panel said. "Law students and other applicants who work for the government are contributing to their communities in a meaningful way."
Work for a nonprofit organization would count, provided the purpose is to help the underrepresented. Partisan political activities would be excluded.
Paid work would be permitted so long as it met the requirements.
A large majority of law students — 75 percent to 90 percent — already do at least 50 hours of pro bono work through the schools’ clinical programs and summer externships, the panel said.
All the schools, as well as Legal Services, indicated an ability to increase pro bono opportunities, accommodate more volunteers and supervise them, it added.
Applicants would get credit for work done in any U.S. jurisdiction under the supervision of a lawyer in good standing with an active license for at least three years.
Applicants would be required to submit an affidavit of compliance, notarized and signed by the supervising attorney, except for those who perform pro bono work in another jurisdiction, who would be allowed to self-certify.
The panel noted that most organizations currently providing pro bono opportunities have malpractice insurance that covers work done by these volunteers.
The panel recommended that an evaluation be performed after two years to learn whether the requirement is achieving its goal of increasing legal services to the needy.
The State Bar noted it already has pro bono programs such as the Hurricane Sandy Response Program. New Jersey is the only state that imposes mandatory pro bono on active lawyers, many law graduates take public-service careers and there is no evidence the requirement would alleviate the need for legal services.
The Bar’s Young Lawyers Division took exception to the 50-hour requirement, but the working group noted that the work could be done "in six or seven days spread out over this time period or in just over a week all at once."
In addition, unnamed working group dissenters were opposed to certain elements of the proposal, particularly allowing paid work and community legal education to count toward the requirement.
Pro bono work is "no less valuable because an entity may be willing to pay for the service," the panel said, noting that many law students incur significant debt. As for the educational programs, they provide a "valuable service," the group said.
There also were concerns that law firms would have difficulty supervising pro bono volunteers, though the majority noted that most work would be done through law school programs.
A notice to the bar was published Thursday seeking comments, which are due to the AOC by June 21.
The New York rule, 22 NYCRR 520.16, applies to bar applicants admitted beginning on Jan. 1, 2015. •