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New York law school officials dubious about impact of state pro bono rule

New rule requiring bar applicants to complete 50 hours of service might not benefit the “justice gap”

New York’s new mandatory pro bono requirement may not pack as big of a punch as intended, law school officials in the state say.

In May, New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced that beginning in 2013, New York would become the first state to require bar applicants to complete mandatory pro bono service. Under the rule, prospective lawyers must complete 50 hours of uncompensated legal work. The rule aims to bridge the so-called “justice gap” by increasing legal representation for the poor by 500,000 hours, according to Lippman.

Although law school officials in the state applaud the endeavor, they aren’t so certain that the new pro bono requirement will help the poor as Lippman envisioned. That’s because when Lippman announced the rule, school officials voiced concern about how they would expand their existing programs on limited budgets. So Lippman opted to broadly define what counts as pro bono work. Under the rule, pro bono service includes clerkships, government internships and other projects—some of them paid—that don’t necessarily help the low-income population.

“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 told Thomson Reuters. “And we didn’t want to make it so difficult” for schools, students and legal service providers to implement.

What’s more, many law schools in the state already meet or exceed the requirements outlined in the new rule. For instance, CUNY Queens Law School requires all graduates to complete at least one clinic, which can add up to 500 hours of work. And at Cornell Law School, all but 14 of the 192 students who graduated this year would have qualified under the new rule.

Matthew Diller, the dean of Cardozo Law School in Manhattan, says the new rule will ultimately impact the culture of the bar down the road, but “pro bono work by law students is not by itself going to solve the underlying problem of access to counsel.”

Read Thomson Reuters for more information about how New York law schools are tweaking their programs to meet the new pro bono requirement.

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