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Judge Details a Rule Requiring Pro Bono Work by Aspiring Lawyers

Friday, September 21, 2012

The state’s chief judge on Wednesday announced the details of a new rule — the first of its kind in the nation — requiring law students to perform 50 hours of unpaid work as a condition of practicing in New York.
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The rule requires law students to do pro bono work for the poor, nonprofit or civil rights groups or any of the three branches of government, between the first year of law school and the time they apply for a license. The work can be performed anywhere in the world but students must be under the supervision of a practicing lawyer, a judge or a member of a law school faculty. The law goes into effect for new students in law schools on Jan. 1.

When the judge, Jonathan Lippman, proposed the rule in May, some in the legal community said it might be burdensome for new lawyers in a tough economy. Others voiced concerns about using those new to the profession to fill what Judge Lippman calls the justice gap: the growing number of people who cannot afford legal services.

But an advisory committee that formulated the final version of the rule answered some of those criticisms: students have a full three years to complete the work and they must be under the counsel of more experienced lawyers.
“I see absolutely no reason why aspiring lawyers can’t do this without greatly burdening themselves,” Judge Lippman said in an interview. He added, “This idea that you have to be a lawyer with 25 years experience to provide a service doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The financial crisis and a slow economy have increased the demand for civil legal services. A task force convened by the judge in 2010 to evaluate the need in the state found that only 20 percent of the legal needs of New York residents were being met. Among those who rarely have the help of a lawyer are people involved in eviction, child support and consumer credit cases.

The Legal Aid Society, the largest provider of those services in the state, turns away eight of every nine people seeking help, said Steven Banks, the chief lawyer of the organization. Mr. Banks said the pro bono requirement would give his lawyers some much needed assistance.


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Kate Powers is an associate in the litigation department at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. She holds a J.D. from Cornell Law School where she served as a Notes Editor of the Cornell International Law Journal. She currently volunteers with Her Justice in New York. Read More

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