New York will soon become the first state in the nation to require pro bono service with Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's recent decision to mandate fifty hours of pro bono work as part of admission to the bar. This is a step in the right direction that can significantly enhance the legal profession.
This new initiative will provide much needed legal assistance for people who cannot afford attorneys. 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. Since the recession began in 2008, requests for legal assistance have increased tremendously, especially in the areas of healthcare, work-related problems, and foreclosures. As Judge Lippman pointed out, approximately 10,000 prospective lawyers pass the New York Bar Exam each year. This will result in 500,000 hours of pro bono legal service.
The pro bono requirement will also benefit the attorney and all future clients because it will provide much needed practical experience in legal education. Professionals ranging from surgeons to construction workers receive significant practical training, but as Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer explained, "Law is the only profession that gives people licenses to perform services for others that doesn't require serious, supervised clinical education." Indeed, top law schools including Stanford have come to recognize the importance of experiential training to better prepare attorneys beyond the theory of the classroom. A pro bono requirement helps fill this critical need for practical training.
Pro bono attorneys are often a client's only chance at achieving some measure of justice. Not all these young lawyers will get "the pro bono bug," as Judge Lippman hopes they will, and carve out a chunk of their valuable time for public service after they are admitted to the bar. But there is a good chance that this experience, and the gratitude of their clients, the bench, the bar and the public, will lead many of them to make some pro bono work a consistent theme of their careers. That will give a fighting chance to countless individuals and families who would otherwise not be able to find legal assistance they need.
Pro bono work can help cultivate a valuable sense of empathy within the legal profession. Those of us who have depended on a pro bono attorney may be more inclined to see the value of such work. Yet the average law student may not have had the experiences that would foster such compassion.
The legal profession by its very nature holds tremendous collective power within our society. By spending time in the formative years of their careers with the least powerful among us -- our lawyers have a better chance to become grounded and humbled, to develop a sense of duty that can only enhance the profession as a whole.
Young lawyers whose first case is one in which they know they are their client's last, best hope will be indelibly shaped by that experience for the better. As Judge Lippman stated, "The legal profession should not be seen as argumentative, narrow or avaricious, but rather one that is defined by the pursuit of justice and the desire to assist our fellow man." Those 50 hours could be the most influential of the young attorneys' lives. Let us hope New York sets the trend for state bars throughout the nation.