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Should prospective lawyers have to do pro bono work to qualify? New York says ‘yes’


New York: students must show commitment to the ideals of the profession

Would-be lawyers in New York will have to undertake 50 hours of pro bono work before they can qualify, the profession’s regulator has decided in a landmark move.

While 6,000 lawyers walked around London yesterday to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for the London Legal Support Trust, in New York the hope is to support people with limited means with half a million hours of pro bono work from the 10,000 students who pass the bar exam every year.

Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals – the state’s highest court, which is also responsible for regulating its legal profession – said that “if pro bono is a core value of our profession, and it is – and if we aspire for all practising attorneys to devote a meaningful portion of their time to public service, and they should – these ideals ought to be instilled from the start, when one first aspires to be a member of the profession”.

He continued: “With this new initiative, New York will lead the way in stating loudly and clearly that service to others is an indispensable part of our legal training and that before you can call yourself a lawyer in New York, you must demonstrate in a very tangible way your commitment to the ideals of our great profession.”

Judge Lippman said an additional benefit will be helping prospective lawyers to build the valuable skills and acquire the hands-on experience “so crucial to becoming a good lawyer”.

He said: “There can be no argument that newly-minted lawyers are simply better at their jobs when they receive direct experience in the practice of law. By assisting a family facing eviction or foreclosure, by working with an attorney to draft a contract for a fledgling not-for-profit, by helping a victim of domestic violence obtain a divorce, or by using their legal talents to help state and local government entities in a time of economic stress, law students can access the real-world lessons that are so important to succeeding in legal practice and hopefully also experience the intrinsic reward that comes from helping others through pro bono service.”

From next year, students applying for admission to the New York Bar will have to include an affidavit describing the nature of their pro bono work, the organisation and the individual lawyer who supervised them, and the dates and hours of service.

Speaking last week, Law Society president John Wotton emphasised that pro bono should only be an adjunct to and not a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system. “However, in the new environment, in which legal aid in England and Wales has been removed from large areas of civil work, we need to do more.

“Specifically, we need to involve more stakeholders, both within the profession and outside, to find new ways of bridging the access to justice gap which has been created by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.” The society is to hold a series of debates aimed at achieving this.