On Tuesday, the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, announced that from next year, New York would become the first state with a precondition for bar aspirants to contribute free legal work before being licensed to practice. The chief judge said that the rule would help the growing number of pending cases and people who cannot afford legal services. The close to 10,000 applicants to the NY bar every year would from now on need to prove at least 50 hours of pro bono service before getting enrolled at the state bar.
The Chief Judge says the extraordinary measures are needed in face of rapidly changing socio-legal-economic scenario where ordinary people are facing what is called a “triple whammy”: increasing numbers of people facing acute financial struggles; increasing numbers of people requiring legal services to help with foreclosures, evictions and credit and employment problems; increasing numbers of state and federal financing sources continuing to dry up.
The condition is so horrendous that the Legal Aid Society has to turn away eight out of every nine people seeking legal help in civil matters. Steven Banks, the attorney-in-chief of Legal Aid Society (NY group) reported that since 2008, healthcare related legal aid requests have jumped by 40 percent, unemployment insurance and work related claims have jumped by 54 percent, domestic violence remedy seeking has jumped by 16 percent, and foreclosure help requests have jumped by 8000 percent. While the constitutional right to free legal representation is available in case of criminal defendants, the same is not applicable in the case of civil defendants regularly drowning in this economic turmoil. Even people applying for disability benefits do not have a constitutional right to free legal representation.
Experts say that Judge Lippman's decision may not be acceptable to most lawyers as lawyers cultivate the spirit of independence and do not like being told what to do. Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, a nonprofit group expressed his doubts about reluctant lawyers being of much help. “I worry about poor people with lawyers who don't want to be there,” he said to the media.
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However, Judge Lippman said, “The legal profession should not be seen as argumentative, narrow or avaricious … but rather one that is defined by the pursuit of justice and the desire to assist our fellow man.”
Supporters of the policy point out that with the current job situation in the market for fresh law graduates, the mandatory requirement for pro bono work would serve as a blessing in disguise and allow all new graduates the opportunity of gaining 50 hours of real work-experience.