By Michael Virtanen
ALBANY— Noting the decline in law school enrollment and opportunities in the profession, New York's chief judge on Tuesday unveiled plans to let law students spend their last semester doing free legal work for practical experience and academic credit.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said the program will also help close the vast "justice gap" facing the poor in New York, where millions face civil issues like eviction, foreclosure, and custody and government benefit issues without advice from lawyers.
The state Board of Law Examiners has already approved the Pro Bono Scholars Program, which Lippman said is expected to be offered as an option to all New York's 15 law schools starting next year.
"First-year enrollment at U.S. law schools is at its lowest level since 1977," Lippman told a courtroom full of judges and attorneys. "This statistic reveals a growing realization among our nation's young people that it may no longer make economic sense to pursue a legal career, with the crushing weight of law school debts, the constricting market for legal jobs, and insufficient opportunities to receive necessary training in practical legal skills."
The new program won't relieve tuition bills, which the students would still pay while doing about 500 hours of full-time pro bono work from March through May. They would work under the supervision of a legal aid group, law firm or corporation in partnership with the school while still attending seminars and performing other academic work.
Not only would students gain practical experience and networking that could lead directly to jobs, they would be permitted to take the state Bar Exam in February instead of waiting until July — an advantage over fellow students who don't apply or don't get accepted to the program.
"Our problem's going to be in some regards that the kids will be banging down our door," Lippman said after unveiling the plan at his annual State of the Judiciary address. "They all want to get out early in the market. They want the practical experience.
"They know that over whatever it is 60 percent of them can't get jobs," Lippman said. "And they know what's the best ticket to getting a job — having practical experience."
Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti, who will be finding placements in pro bono programs for students, said it's difficult to say now how many will be in the first group. The program can also help law schools, many of which have seen their applications drop 25 to 30 percent, she said.
Touro Law Dean Patricia Salkin said she's certain her school's faculty will study Lippman's innovative proposal. "We look forward to being part of the discussion to further develop the details of the program, ensuring it is beneficial for law students seeking hands-on learning opportunities in real world settings while making a meaningful impact in closing the justice gap," she said.
Lippman said New York would be the first state to do this, and if it expands across the country the approach could have a huge effect in meeting legal needs of people who can't afford it.
He also proposed Tuesday giving non-lawyers a limited role in helping those people, outlining incubator projects in Housing Court in Brooklyn and consumer debt cases in the Bronx and Brooklyn where so-called "navigators" will provide information and help assembling paperwork and will be able to accompany litigants into the courtroom.