Some see moment for caution
By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
New York State’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced a sweeping change to law school education by announcing a program whereby third-year law students can opt to spend their final semester in law school giving 500 hours of work in a pro bono capacity in exchange for an accelerated consideration for application to the New York State Bar.
Noting the decline in law school enrollment and opportunities in the profession, Lippman unveiled the Pro Bono Scholars program, which will allow third-year law school students to spend their final law school semester volunteering their time and knowledge to assist underprivileged persons facing civil issues like eviction, foreclosure and custody and government benefit issues without advice from lawyers. Noting the dim job market for new lawyers and the need to access justice, Lippman believes his plan to be a guided approach to killing the proverbial two birds with one policy stone.
“[T]here is still a gaping disconnect today between the oversupply of new attorneys, who are unable to secure jobs and the tremendous need for legal assistance among the poor and people of limited means,” Lippman said during his annual State of Judiciary address. Students will receive school credit while working with a corporation or a legal services organization in providing free legal services." Lippman assures that “law schools will oversee a rigorous academic component to ensure that students are learning vital practice skills,” a task that Brooklyn Law School Dean Nick Allard is ready to take on and some Brooklyn attorneys are prepared to support.
“Judge Lippman’s proposal would add an option that makes sense for many students and benefit the community,” Allard said, speaking with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's pro bono scholars program announcement is a win-win for everyone. Law students while gaining valuable practical experience, skills and confidence in their intended profession, simultaneously develop a sense of responsibility and professionalism,” noted Bruce Baron, a Brooklyn-based attorney who also serves "pro bono" as special counsel to the president of the New York State Court Officers Union.
“The needy and economically disadvantaged are able to obtain legal services they might not normally be able to obtain, while the community as a whole maintains a positive feeling about the legal profession and its practitioners," he said.
“I welcome it, and not just because it is consistent with programs that Brooklyn Law School has added to address the third year, including new opportunities for public service, pro bono work, and practical training,” Allard added.
Lippman believes that real-world training will be one aspect of the program that will attract students as well as accelerated processing through the New York lawyer admission process. Participants in Lippman’s new program will be eligible to sit for the New York State Bar Exam in February, as opposed to July of their graduating year. Having worked 500 pro bono hours, participants will have satisfied the requisite 50 hours pro bono service hours required for all graduates wanting to sit for the New York State Bar Exam.
“Our problem's going to be in some regards that the kids will be banging down our door," Lippman said after unveiling the plan. "They all want to get out early in the market. They want the practical experience.”
“Folded into the pro bono scholar program is another very important initiative: a proposal to accelerate the character and fitness review process,” Allard advised. “New York State law graduates are at a huge disadvantage in the job market because it takes so long for them to be admitted after they pass the bar. This feature alone makes the new program ground-breaking.”
Some worry that the program has not been fully thought out. “It’s a nice idea, I just don’t know how it will play out,” said Brooklyn attorney Robin Kahn, named partner at the Law Offices of Miller and Kahn. “It would be nice if the program included a form of loan forgiveness.” It does not. 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.
“The benefit is more for the courts than the law students,” said Kahn. “I think that for the students it will be difficult to do 500 hours when they have all of their expenses. There will still be their law school loans.”
The Brooklyn Bar Association, whose stated primary purpose is to promote professional competence among attorneys and increased respect for the legal system, has not been given the full opportunity to review the wide sweeping change prior to its announcement.
“As this is a new program, and one that was not disclosed to the [Brooklyn Bar Association] in advance of Judge Lippman's announcement, the BBA has not yet studied the concept,” Andrew Fallek, president of the BBA, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The association has reserved its judgment for when the full proposal is released. “We will be happy to share the Association's opinion if the Board of Trustees and officers agree on a position after studying it,” he said.
Allard noted that the lack of details will not deter him from working to implement the plan at Brooklyn Law School. “I'm not worried about working out the details of the Lippman plan because the objective is worthy and he can rely on all of New York’s great law schools to work out the details and succeed,” Allard stated.
New York would be the first state to do this, and if it expands across the country, Lippman contends that the approach could have a huge effect in meeting legal needs of people who can't afford legal help.
“C.J. Lippman's initiatives show the way, but they are not complete solutions,” Allard concluded. “Law schools and the profession must find additional creative ways to bridge the gap and provide affordable legal services to the less advantaged by quality lawyers who are fairly compensated for their work."