New York is once again in the forefront of narrowing the civil justice gap with a bold new initiative to promote pro bono work. Last year, New York became the first jurisdiction in the United States to require pro bono service as a condition for bar applicants to become licensed for law practice. Beginning in January 2015, applicants seeking admission to the New York State Bar must complete at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono service. The Committee’s White Paper, New York’s 50-hour Preadmission Pro Bono Rule: Weighing the Potential Pros and Cons, explores the new rule’s contours, inventories potential benefits and drawbacks, and reports on activity in other states that are pondering whether to follow New York’s lead. Mandatory pro bono for bar admission is or has been discussed in a number other states, including California, New Jersey, Montana, and Connecticut. California is perhaps furthest along and has been exploring broad-based changes to the legal education model that would emphasize experiential learning, including through pro bono work.
As described in the White Paper, the Committee has some concern with the New York rule’s broad definition of “pro bono service,” which includes not only pro bono activities which come within the definition used in ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 and New York’s own professional conduct standard on pro bono, but also activities better described as “law-related public service.” In New York, the broad definition was considered necessary as a practical matter both to provide the requisite service opportunities for the thousands of applicants who seek admission to the New York bar and also to respond to pressing needs of various government agencies which reported problems attracting new graduates, who feel they can no longer afford to work in the public sector. To avoid diluting or confusing the meaning of pro bono work, the Committee would urge other jurisdictions considering the New York approach to consider using both “pro bono” and “law-related public service” to describe the qualifying service if they follow a similar approach. But whatever you call it, there can be no doubt that the rule will provide valuable benefits to the people of New York state and elsewhere, at the same time it educates tomorrow’s lawyers on the value of pro bono and other forms of law-related public service. We applaud Chief Judge Lippman and so many others in New York who seek new means to meet the legal needs of the poor and put the spotlight on the importance of pro bono work by all members of the legal community – law students, pre-admission law graduates and practicing lawyers – towards that end. The Committee will continue to monitor and revise our report as further developments occur across the country.
Mary K. Ryan is a partner at the law firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP and Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service.