No, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman didn't take a poll or worry about the reaction when he announced a plan in May to require 50 hours of pro bono service for admission to the New York bar. At a moment of crisis for access to justice, Lippman told a gathering of D.C. lawyers today, the judiciary and the legal profession "must be bold and proactive."
Lippman was the keynote speaker at an annual lunch held by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program and hosted by Arnold & Porter to honor pro bono work by local lawyers over the past year. Lippman was the driving force behind an at-times controversial plan to require pro bono work for admission to the New York bar, a rule that goes into effect January 1. Introducing Lippman today, James Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, called him "a hero."
Speaking via video – Hurricane Sandy forced Lippman to cancel plans to travel to D.C. – Lippman said the idea for the requirement came out of the dire financial straits facing civil legal services organizations at a time when demand for legal services for low-income individuals is on the rise. In New York, he said that only an estimated 20 percent of civil legal services needs are being met.
The pro bono requirement, which is the first of its kind for a state bar, is "conceptually unassailable," Lippman said, even as he acknowledged concerns raised by law schools and legal services providers about how it would work in practice. He also said that the requirement was not a precursor to a mandatory pro bono requirement for the bar, another concern within the legal community.
Lippman said he hoped other states would consider similar requirements. District of Columbia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Eric Washington spoke at the event, but didn't address in his remarks whether Washington might follow New York's lead. Speaking after the event, Washington said that he thought the plan was "innovative" and would be discussing it with local leaders in the bar and academia, but that he hadn't decided whether he would be in favor of adopting it in the District.
In his remarks, Washington praised the commitment to pro bono work by D.C. lawyers, saying he knew that "times are tough" for the legal community and that pro bono work could come at the expense of billable hours. "What you do is give real meaning to the words: equal justice for all," he said. He noted that demand is growing for legal assistance, with more 20,000 people served in the past year at the local court's self-help and resource centers for unrepresented litigants.
Lippman said that with demand on the rise – the New York Legal Aid Society has to turn away eight of every nine people seeking assistance, he said – ideas such as the bar admission requirement are important. "We need to think outside the box," he said.
Under the new rule, applicants to the New York bar will have to submit an affidavit and proof that they completed 50 hours of pro bono work. That work can take place through traditional legal services providers, but can also include government and nonprofit service or law school clinics. "If we are ever to close the justice gap, this is so basic," Lippman said.
National Law Journal photo by Diego M. Radzinschi.