By Daniel Wiessner and Joseph Ax
Oct 15(Reuters) - New York state's new rule requiring law
students to complete 50 hours of pro bono work before being
admitted to the bar is unlikely to deliver 500,000 new hours of
legal services for the poor envisioned by its creators, law
school officials across the state said.
Since Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman first announced the
requirement in May, he has said that it would add roughly half a
million hours of pro bono service each year, or about 50 hours
apiece for each of the roughly 10,000 people who apply to the
It is difficult to gauge the level of pro bono hours New
York law students already perform, since the work is not tracked
by any organization. But based on estimates from the schools, it
is in the tens of thousands of hours, a level that will
certainly rise with the new mandate.
The challenge in meeting the 500,000-hour goal stems from
objections that were voiced when Lippman first announced his
proposal in May. At the time, the scope of what would count as
pro bono work was unclear and school administrators worried the
mandate would force them to expand their programs at a time of
To win over administrators -- whose buy-in was crucial --
Lippman opted to define pro bono broadly so it would cover
existing programs such as clerkships, government internships and
other initiatives that do not necessarily benefit low-income
people. In doing so, however, he reduced the impact of the
requirement on what he has dubbed the "justice gap," or the lack
of civil legal services for the poor, school officials said.
"Will it increase the number by 500,000? Probably not,
though I think we will see an increase in hours," said Larry
Cunningham, an associate dean at St. John's University School of
Law in Queens, New York. "The real benefit is that it
communicates a message to students early on about the importance
of pro bono and of gaining experience while you're in law
When asked about the 500,000-hour goal, a spokesman for
Lippman said it was not a firm figure but an "estimate to
describe the magnitude of the approach." Lippman himself called
the final rule a compromise, but said that many students would
go beyond the 50-hour threshold and that the "great majority" of
the work would benefit underserved people.
"We had a choice to say that only the most narrow definition
of service to the poor would count, and we felt that left out a
whole area of public service," Lippman said. "And we didn't want
to make it so difficult" for schools, students and legal service
providers to implement.
Under the final version of the rule, many school programs
and even summer jobs that provide stipends or salaries qualify
as pro bono, so that some schools will have to do little or
nothing to comply.
Of the 192 students who graduated from Cornell Law School
this year, all but 14 would have qualified under the pro bono
requirement, said Stewart Schwab, the school's dean. Most of
them completed "public interest fellowships" or summer associate
programs at law firms, he said.
During the 2011-12 year at SUNY Buffalo Law School, 135 of
449 eligible students completed clinics, a spokeswoman said.
Another 142 students logged more than 15,000 hours collectively
in externships and judicial clerkships, she said, for a total of
at least 35,000 hours.
Similarly, CUNY Queens Law School, which currently has about
430 students, requires graduates to complete at least one
clinic, which can involve up to 500 hours of work. Touro and
Columbia Law School, which have about 1,800 students between
them, make graduation conditional on the performance of 40 hours
of pro bono work.
In the weeks since the details of the plan were made public,
law school officials have praised Lippman and the 15-member
panel that helped craft the requirement f o r responding to their
concerns. They emphasized that the impact of the rule will
ultimately be measured by the way it alters the culture of law
education to include a greater emphasis on public service.
"If you look at the culture of the bar 10 or 20 years down
the road, I think you'll see a significant shift," said Matthew
Diller, the dean of Cardozo Law School in Manhattan. But "pro
bono work by law students is not by itself going to solve the
underlying problem of access to counsel."
Some schools have already tweaked their programs to meet
the new requirement, which goes into effect on Jan. 1 and
applies to anyone accepted to the state bar after Jan. 1, 2015.
Hofstra has shifted faculty around and created two new
positions, while Albany Law School has hired a fellow to help
students fulfill the requirement. New York Law School has
launched a new program, the Pro Bono Initiative, designed to
expand pro bono opportunities and bring the programs under a
Officials at several other schools said they may soon
consider tapping more people to run clinics, which are often
staffed by adjunct professors. Most schools also are looking to
form partnerships with law firms, legal service providers,
non-profit groups and government agencies to expand pro bono
opportunities for students.
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