Wednesday, May 2, 2012

New lawyers to give needy free legal help

Chief judge uses Law Day to reveal rule, first in the nation for bar admission

You'll have to donate 50 hours of pro bono, or free, legal work to the needy before getting admitted to the New York State Bar, according to a new requirement Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman laid down Tuesday during his annual Law Day address.

The idea is to give more legal aid for those who need it but can't pay, and to help imbue newly-minted lawyers with the ideal of working toward the greater good, said Lippman. New York is the first state to mandate such a requirement.

"What better way to send the strongest message to those about to enter our profession? Assisting in meeting the urgent need for legal services is a necessary and essential qualification to becoming a lawyer," Lippman told an audience of lawyers, judges, politicians and others present for the Law Day talk.

With 10,000 prospective lawyers taking the state bar exam each year, the 50-hour requirement adds up to 500,000 hours of free, supervised legal advice, Lippman said.

Since the mandate is coming too late for this year's class of law school graduates, the requirement will likely begin next year.

And because the mandate is a licensing requirement, it won't apply to lawyers already admitted to the bar. Forcing licensed attorneys to work for free would likely run headlong into a raft of legal issues.

The mandate was welcomed by some in the legal aid field. Steven Banks, attorney in chief for The Legal Aid Society in New York City, said the group helps people in 44,000 civil cases a year, but they turn away many. Overall, the group is able to help only one of nine people who apply.

Lippman has pressed for years for an expansion of public access to legal assistance in civil courts. The need has grown since the 2008 housing crash, with increased numbers of New Yorkers in danger of foreclosure by lenders.

"I really think this is an idea whose time has come," Lippman said after his speech.

Law school faculty members generally welcomed the idea, but noted it will take some logistical planning.

"The initiative really dovetails with what we are doing," said Alicia Ouellette, associate dean for student affairs and a law professor at Albany Law School, where about 200 of the school's 725 students currently volunteer pro bono services. "Mandating it takes it a step further," she added. "We're going to have to think about how to expand the program."

Albany Law offers a range of pro bono services for low- and moderate-income groups such as veterans, seniors, inmates being released from prison and Iraqi refugees.

The students work under the supervision of lawyers already admitted to the bar.

Many of the students put in more than 50 hours during their school careers, added Danshera Cords, a law professor who helps oversee a program where students help low-income filers prepare their income tax returns.

"It teaches students that as they go out into the world, it's important that they give back," said Cords.

Law Day is a national recognition of the importance that the law plays in the nation's civic life. It dates to the 1950s when leaders wanted to counter what at the time was viewed as the communist-inspired May Day celebrations.

By Rick Karlin,, 518-454-5758

Source: The Albany Times Union

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