The hours of pro bono work and the financial contributions to groups providing legal services to the poor that lawyers must report on their biennial registration forms will be available to anyone who requests them.
"It is our responsibility to give it out," Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said in a recent interview. "If someone asks for the information, they can have it."
But some attorneys are troubled by the lack of confidentiality in the new mandatory reporting system.
"I do believe that you should not have to disclose to anyone what your personal, voluntary pro bono efforts are. That is the attorney's business," said Marian Rice of L'Abbate, Balkan, Colavita & Contini in Garden City, who recently finished a term as president of the Nassau County Bar Association. "We need to do a better job to make attorneys want to do more, but requiring disclosure is a contra-indication of what I think charity should be."
Barbara Moses, counsel at Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello, the president of the New York County Lawyers' Association, said that her group has not taken a position, but the mandatory disclosure will make some lawyers uneasy.
"Sharing that kind of fairly intimate financial information as a condition of maintaining our professional license is something we should all be a little nervous about," she said. "That should not be public fodder."
The chief judge said he has heard only scattered complaints. The feedback has been "overwhelmingly positive," he said.
While Lippman conceded that not all lawyers will embrace his emphasis on pro bono, he said he is doing what he sees as his duty.
"From my perspective, it is my responsibility as the steward of the justice system to meet the primary mission of fostering equal justice in our state," Lippman said. "I have no reservations whatsoever that we are not doing exactly what we should be doing to ensure equal justice."
Lippman added, "I think lawyers get that. They are not narrow. They are not parochial. They are not avaricious. They are not thinking just about the bottom line and about a paycheck. That is not what lawyers are about in this state."
The requirement is intended to provide a more precise picture of the "justice gap" facing low-income New Yorkers in civil legal areas and trigger ideas for how to close that gap.
Studies in New York and nationally have indicated that only about 20 percent of the poor who need legal representation in civil matters get it.
The courts recently increased to 50 from 20 hours annually the minimum amount of pro bono to which New York lawyers should aspire.
In addition to voluntary pro bono, the state is suggesting that lawyers should make an annual financial contribution equivalent to one billable hour.
The contributions must be reported on the registration form in increments of zero, $1-$250; $251-$750; $751-$2,000; $2,001-$5,000 and more than $5,000.
Some lawyers fear that the mandatory disclosures are a harbinger of making pro bono mandatory.
In 2004, the New York State Bar Association's House of Delegates opposed mandated pro bono and the disclosure of the hours and donations lawyers give to legal services.
The group's new president, David Schraver of Nixon Peabody in Rochester, said he trusts Lippman's assurances that the chief judge does not intend to make pro bono mandatory for the state's 200,000 licensed attorneys.
But Schraver said not all lawyers welcome the new self-reporting requirements.
"Generally speaking, lawyers resist being compelled to do things that some people feel is an invasion of their privacy," he said. "They do this because they want to do it and they don't want anybody looking over their shoulder."
He added, "There are also some that are concerned that this is a slippery slope toward mandatory pro bono."
While Schraver said there has not been a "hue and cry," the "relatively small number" of lawyers that he has heard from "feel strongly" against disclosure.
Helaine Barnett, chairwoman of Lippman's taskforce on access to civil legal services that recommended the pro bono disclosure rule, said the requirement has been used for years in seven other states, including Florida, Illinois and Maryland.
The information is confidential in Maryland and Illinois; and subject to public disclosure in Florida.
Barnett said that in all three states, self-reporting seems to have been a factor in increasing donations of both pro bono hours and monetary contributions.
Illinois, for instance, has seen annual pro bono hours increase by about 10 percent since it adopted a self-reporting system in 2007, says Barnett's taskforce.
"We are in no way recommending that there be mandatory giving and mandatory pro bono," Barnett, former president of the Legal Services Corp., said in an interview. "But by asking [what lawyers contribute], we believe we will heighten sensitivity and to encourage them and spur them on and make them do more than they would do otherwise."
The information on pro bono will not be posted on the Unified Court System's website, but a Freedom of Information request will not be required to access it, said court system spokesman David Bookstaver. Rather it can be obtained with a request to the Office of Communications, Unified Court System, 25 Beaver St., New York, N.Y., 10004 or 212-428-2500.
William Russell of Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett, the former chairman of the New York City Bar's pro bono committee, acknowledged that some lawyers may well be "embarrassed" by what they report.
"I really don't think it is trying to shame attorneys," Russell said in an interview. "I think it is more designed to have attorneys think about what pro bono work they are doing. There are a lot of lawyers, if they sat down and thought about it, I think they would do more than they are doing."
Russell said he could "understand why people have some concerns" about disclosures being public—"nobody likes to have their personal information out there"—but he said having a better idea of the overall pro bono contributions of time and money will be invaluable in meeting the needs of more unrepresented New Yorkers.
Mary Jo Long, a solo practitioner from Afton, Chenango County, who was recently honored by the state bar for her pro bono work in representing clients in unemployment insurance cases, said she supports Lippman's efforts.
But Long said she thought something would be lost if pro bono became obligatory.
"I do think that it is kind of a moral obligation to give back some service, either in the form of free services or contributions," she said. "I feel good about it because I am volunteering. I don't know how it would work if it is more mandatory. There isn't the same generosity of heart or spirit that happens if it is truly voluntarily done."
Marc Ehrlich, of Ehrlich & Arcodia in Troy, said he or his firm have been honored six times by legal aid societies or bar groups for pro bono work and that he has found that the same lawyers are honored "over and over again."
"Judge Lippman is absolutely correct in that we need to get more people to do it," Ehrlich said. "He is trying to get a handle on what the numbers are. I think he is going to find that there are an awful lot of people who are doing pro bono work, but that they are not putting in a tremendous number of hours. We have to get the dabblers to integrate it more into their practices."
Joel Stashenko is a reporter for the New York Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.