The approximately 10,000 lawyers who apply to the New York State Bar each year will have to demonstrate that they have performed 50 hours of pro bono work to be admitted, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said. He said the move was intended to provide about a half-million hours of badly needed legal services to those with urgent problems, like foreclosure and domestic violence.
The need has exploded in recent years as the economic crisis delivered what advocates for the poor call a triple whammy: more people are struggling financially; more people need legal services to cope with foreclosures, evictions and credit and employment problems that could push them into long-term poverty; and state and federal financing for legal services has plunged.
The Legal Aid Society, the nation’s largest provider of free legal services, turns away eight of every nine people seeking help with civil legal matters, said Steven Banks, the New York group’s attorney in chief. Since the economic downturn began in 2008, Mr. Banks said, requests for assistance have jumped 40 percent for health care issues, 54 percent for unemployment insurance and work-related problems, 16 percent for domestic violence and “a stunning 800 percent” for foreclosures.
While criminal defendants have a constitutional right to free legal representation, defendants in civil cases — as well as people who need legal help for essential needs like applying for disability benefits — do not.
In his three years at the helm of the state’s court system, Judge Lippman has made New York a national model and has been praised in the legal profession by addressing what he calls the justice gap, allocating millions of dollars from the courts’ administrative budget for free legal services and making it easier for retired lawyers to take pro bono cases.
But his latest measure may prove more controversial, some of his admirers said, because it wades into a fierce debate among lawyers over whether mandatory pro bono service is the right solution — and because it could hit the pocketbooks of young lawyers at a time when they are struggling to find jobs. Judge Lippman and the court administrative board have the power to do so because, unlike in many other states, the New York court system, and not the bar association, sets the requirements.
“Lawyers do not like to be told what to do,” said Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, a nonprofit group that works with law firms to improve their pro bono services. “I worry about poor people with lawyers who don’t want to be there.”
In New Jersey, lawyers have long complained about a 20-year-old court order that allows judges to assign private lawyers in their counties to certain cases that are not covered by its public defenders. Some lawyers can win exceptions, but many argue that the burden is unevenly spread, falling more heavily in counties that have fewer available lawyers.
Supporters of the plan acknowledge that it will require more training and supervision for law students and recent graduates, who can file legal papers and appear in court if they are supervised. But they said they hoped it would dovetail with an increasing focus in many law schools on clinics that provide practical experience.
Because New York is a magnet for top law schools across the country, its bar requirements could help prompt the expansion of pro bono work elsewhere, said Don Saunders, a vice president at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in Washington, who called Judge Lippman’s work to increase the amount of money for legal services “groundbreaking.”
Ms. Lardent, who supports pro bono requirements for law students, said she liked a “big audacious idea” if it did not place undue burdens on young lawyers who face a difficult job market and, if they are new to New York, may need help finding appropriate pro bono work.
For his part, Judge Lippman made clear that he believed the requirement would be a source of satisfaction to most lawyers and would not be onerous — it could be completed in a weeklong summer internship, members of his staff noted.
Pro bono work would be defined to include steps like representing poor people in civil court and legal work for a nonprofit group or government agency.
“The legal profession should not be seen as argumentative, narrow or avaricious,” Judge Lippman said in Albany at one of the many Law Day ceremonies held around the country on Tuesday to celebrate the rule of law, “but rather one that is defined by the pursuit of justice and the desire to assist our fellow man.”
Because detailed regulations have yet to be drafted, it is unclear whether lawyers moving to New York in the middle of their careers would be affected, or whether the work would have to be completed in the state. The graduates of New York law schools in 2010 made up less than half of the new lawyers admitted to the bar.
Judge Lippman said that while the preference was for work in New York, there would probably be provisions to allow recent law graduates to count work done while in law school elsewhere.