Following New York’s lead, the New Jersey Supreme Court is about to give serious thought to mandating that bar applicants put in a quantum of pro bono work as a precondition for admission.
A New York court rule amendment adopted in September requires prospective lawyers to show they have done at least 50 hours of law-related volunteer work before admission to the state bar.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and the Supreme Court have requested an evaluation of the New York rule and of whether New Jersey should emulate it. Judge Glenn Grant, acting administrative director of the courts, is leading a working group.
In his Oct. 16 letter to group members, Grant said New York’s new mandate “furthers a number of commendable aims” and “is aimed at expanding access to citizens who otherwise would not have representation.”
“We know that in New Jersey, as in states around the nation, the number of people who come to court with no attorney remains high,” Grant wrote.
Citing judiciary statistics, he said 97 percent of small-claims defendants and 99 percent of landlord-tenant defendants are pro se.
“These numbers, combined with the ongoing limits of resources for Legal Services of New Jersey, continue to cause concern about access for a considerable portion of those who could be most in need,” he wrote.
Proponents of the New York amendment pointed up many of the same access-to-justice problems.
Besides Grant, the group’s 16 members were selected for their expertise in legal education and pro bono practice, and were notified last week, says judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort.
The members include the deans from New Jersey’s three law schools; retired Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long; Legal Services president Melville Miller Jr.; representatives of the New Jersey State Bar Association, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, the New Jersey Board of Bar Examiners and other organizations; and a third-year law student.
The first meeting is scheduled for Nov. 1. As yet, there is no set number of meetings or a due date for the panel’s recommendation, Comfort says.
“This is an important project and one that will be approached with study and deliberation,” she says.
New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced the pro bono requirement in May and released the new rule, 22 NYCRR 520.16, last month. It will apply to those admitted on or after Jan. 1, 2015.
Qualifying pro bono work includes providing legal services for the needy, nonprofit entities, state and local government bodies, or those seeking access to justice.
The work must be performed under the supervision of a law school faculty member, an admitted attorney in good standing, or a judge or lawyer employed by the court system.
Participation in law school clinics for which students receive credit would count.
Services may be completed in any state or U.S. territory, the District of Columbia or foreign country.
“I firmly believe that this will set the pace in the country,” Lippman told the New York Law Journal, an ALM publication. “On every level it makes sense, for new lawyers, for the profession as a whole, for the legal services providers, for the judges. So I am really upbeat about it.”
Some prospective New Jersey lawyers already are doing what would qualify in New York as pro bono work. More than 20 programs at law schools and in government entail such work, Comfort says, citing New Jersey Court Rule 1:21-3, which allows third-year law students and graduates to make court appearances.
David Weinberg, assistant dean of career services at Seton Hall University School of Law, says: “We believe that a sizable majority of our students will be able to meet New York state’s new pro bono work requirement well before they graduate.”
“Credit will be given for activities such as participation in a law school clinic such as offered by our Center for Social Justice, a judicial externship, a summer job with a state or federal prosecutor or public defender, or participation in programs such as our law school’s attorney-supervised VITA program (Volunteer Income Tax Services).”
Legal Services of New Jersey, which represents low-income litigants, has appealed to lawmakers for increased funding as budget cuts have forced layoffs and a reduction in services provided.
In June, the Legislature passed a measure that would have raised court fees to help fund the organization — as well as implementation of the judiciary’s electronic document filing system — but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it, citing spending concerns. •
David Gialanella is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.