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MCBA President’s Message: Helping future lawyers with ‘pro bono’ requirement

Bryan D. Hetherington

In his Law Day remarks this month, Chief Judge Jonathan Lipmann announced that, effective in 2013, applicants for admission to the practice of law in New York state will have to demonstrate to the Committee on Character and Fitness that they have engaged in a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono activity. The pro bono work can be completed in law school or after graduation

The chief judge’s initiative seeks to respond to the huge number of individuals who have no trained advocate who can help them present their cases. They are at far higher risk of being unable to get a fair result from a justice system that is designed to reach a fair result when there is a trained advocate on both sides of the case.

Perhaps as importantly, it seeks to have newly admitted lawyers understand, before they get distracted by the business of the law, that providing legal services to those who desperately need but cannot afford those services is not an optional activity, but is at the core of what it means to be a professional and is one of the most satisfying activities we do as lawyers

Since the chief judge’s announcement, many attorneys have asked how our association can respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the new requirement. MCBA’s President’s Commission on Access to Justice, under the able leadership of Jim Gocker, will be discussing the issue at its meeting next week. Much is yet unknown, but by thinking about the issues early we may be able to provide input to help shape the requirements so they meet both of Judge Lipmann’s objectives and are feasibly implemented locally.

Law graduates in 2013 and beyond will meet the requirement through various methods, and only some will require new forms of local support. I suspect that many, and in future years perhaps most, of the law graduates who move to the Rochester area and seek admission from here will have already performed their 50 hours of service while they were in law school, either in a clinical program or through an externship program sponsored by their law schools.

Many of the New York law schools already have clinical and externship programs. Like many legal services programs, Empire Justice Center where I work, has found very productive ways to use externs. However, they do require training and supervision from paid staff, so there are limits to the number of students who can be productively engaged in them.

Clinical programs and externships are likely to expand, both because of this initiative, as well as in the face of a growing demand for more hands-on practical experience in law schools. The chief judge is sponsoring a meeting between the New York law schools and the civil legal services providers later this month and I am sure there will good conversation about what we can do together to support this important initiative.

Many law students will have been able to fulfill their requirements through summer clerkships. Those who worked in private firms may be able to work on qualifying pro bono cases and matters that the firm is handling. Those who clerk in legal services and legal aid programs should also be able to meet the requirements through that experience. It will be important that the rules that are drafted to implement the new requirement do not disqualify individuals who receive some sort of stipend for their summer clerkships in legal services and legal aid programs.

Despite these opportunities, a good number of students will undoubtedly graduate without fulfilling their 50 hours, including some who come to New York from out of state law schools. Those who secure employment with Rochester area firms and attorneys before their admission will probably be able to meet their requirement on cases the firm or attorney who employs them has taken or will take through Volunteer Legal Services Project. But some law graduates do not have jobs at graduation, or will be working in jobs where they do not have the opportunity to work on pro bono matters as part of their employment.

As a legal community we will have to try to figure out how many of these graduates we are likely to have each year, and how we can support their need to meet the 50-hour requirement to obtain admission to the bar. Who will provide the training and supervision needed to allow the graduates to productively meet the need in ways that make them want to keep providing pro bono assistance throughout their careers? What types of work can they productively do in a 50-hour span? If you have ideas please let Jim Gocker or me know.

Bryan D. Hetherington is president of the Monroe County Bar Association. He is chief counsel of the Empire Justice Center, located in the Telesca Center for Justice. He can be reached at bhetherington@empirejustice.org.

 

 

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