Requiring Volunteerism: New York’s Fifty-Hour Pro-Bono Requirement

New York's Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman                   © Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union
New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman
© Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

by Cara Murphy, Staff Writer

If you plan on taking the New York bar examination after January 2015, you will need to do more than learn New York law and prove that you are of moral character; you will need to show that you devoted fifty hours to pro-bono work. While it is common for a state to require an attorney to do a certain number of pro-bono hours, this requirement placed upon bar applicants would be the first of its kind in the nation.

New York Chief Judge Judge Jonathan Lippman unveiled this new requirement on September 2012 to the praise of many non-profit organizations in New York. Though Judge Lippman suggested this new regulation on May 2012, its official debut in September marked the start of a greater focus by the bar association of New York on helping to address the legal concerns of the destitute and the promotion of volunteerism among attorneys.

Though this new requirement has received considerable praise, some are concerned with how applicants will be able to achieve this goal on top of their other duties and responsibilities.

In order to address these concerns, the restrictions placed on this requirement are minimal. The work completed during the fifty hours must be law-related, it must be performed under watch of an attorney, judge, or law school faculty member, and it should aim to help low-income or disadvantaged individuals. Though this requirement is applicable to those who wish to obtain a license to practice in New York, the fifty hours of work can be completed anywhere in the United States or even in a foreign nation.
New York is the first state to adopt such a policy, but will others follow its lead?  The American Bar Association (ABA) only suggests that lawyers participate in fifty hours of pro-bono work, but has volunteering no requirements.  Pennsylvania has mirrored the ABA in suggesting that lawyers be involved in volunteer legal work, but places no requirement on its attorneys to do so.
Currently, Duquesne University School of Law has a Pro Bono Program in which students can receive a certificate of recognition and notation in the graduation program if they complete thirty or more hours at one of the numerous placements listed on the Pro Bono Program website. Though this program is not required of students, the benefits of participating in it or participating in another volunteer program can be immense. Not only does volunteering in such programs aid those who are economically disadvantaged, but can also provide an edge on an application in a tough economic climate.

So while some New York bar applicants may grumble about the requirement placed upon them, in the end they may not only benefit the economically disadvantaged, but themselves as well.

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