This week as the media reported Chief Judge Johnathan Lippman’s decision to require applicants for admission to the New York Bar to perform 50 hours of pro bono law work as part of their admission requirement, every story included a lament that lawyers might oppose this sorely needed initiative. The Times wrote the “measure may prove more controversial ... because it wades into the 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.” The story went on to quote one attorney saying lawyers don’t want to be told what to do.
I applaud Judge Lippman’s mandatory requirement; it is absolutely needed. Not just poor people, but middle class families have too often been priced out of the civil legal system in America. Lawyers and judges who practice in civil courts can attest to the rising occurrence of unrepresented parties, even in very complicated and crucial cases. As a practicing attorney I’ve seen how it can tilt the legal playing field, and rob our civil justice system of our desire for “equal protection under the law.” Frankly, the problem is growing worse. In fact, as necessary and laudable as Judge Lippman’s requirement is, it is really just a start. Though the new admission mandate is likely to produce at least 500,000 pro bono hours a year, it will only begin to address the need.
Before people begin to think most lawyers don’t recognize the crying need for access to affordable representation, or oppose ways to address it for reasons of narrow avarice, we should all recognize that bar associations, law schools, consumer groups and, yes, individual lawyers across New York and America have been struggling to address this growing need. In the New York City area, some of them are associated with the CUNY Legal Resources Network, a group of several hundred lawyers dedicated to practice in the public interest including meaningful pro bono and low bono representation for individuals, families and small businesses otherwise practically denied access to our justice system.