April 10, 2013
As many of you have probably heard, the pro bono landscape was dramatically, and permanently, changed on January 1, 2013 when new rules went into effect in New York State that require that most of the applicants for admission to the bar in New York must complete at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono service prior to filing an admission for application for admission. These rules not only apply to graduates of New York law school but also to lawyers from other jurisdictions (including foreign lawyers) who want to practice law in New York and thus are seeking bar admission. Students in their first and second years of law school as of the effective date immediately became subject to the requirements and the requirements will apply to everyone who seeks admission to the New York bar on or after January 1, 2015. While Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which urges lawyers to aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono public legal services each year, and state bar policies based thereon have long advocated pro bono service, the New York rule is the first one that makes such service mandatory. It is presumed that other states, such as California, Massachusetts and New Jersey, each of which are considering similar rules in a preliminary manner, will watch developments in New York closely as they play out over the next few years.
Law students and attorneys who become subject to the requirements will be given a broad range of opportunities to satisfy them as the New York rules define pro bono service to include work performed for people of limited means, not-for-profit organizations, and other individuals or groups seeking to promote access to justice. In order to qualify the work must be performed under the supervision of a law school faculty member, licensed attorney or judge and work by conducted under the auspices of law school legal clinics or governmental entities. Work need not be performed in New York and may be completed in any US state or territory, the District of Columbia or a foreign country. The Advisory Committee on New York State Pro Bono Bar Admission Requirements rightly pointed out that the new requirements will address the crisis in access to justice; however, the Committee also noted that the requirements are an opportunity for prospective attorneys to build valuable skills. Obviously law students and new lawyers interested in litigation can take advantage of the wide range of litigation-oriented pro bono programs that have been available for a number of years. Fledgling business attorneys may have to work harder to find a marriage between their passion and pro bono service but law schools and law firms will hopefully arrange opportunities to assist clients interested in setting up new businesses but lacking the resources to pay substantial fees to lawyers.
Pro bono requirements of this type should be viewed by you as an opportunity to gain needed experience that you can’t normally get in the law school classroom setting. If you are still in law school seek out faculty members and clinic coordinators and ask them about ways to get on-the-job training in counseling new businesses. If you are out of law school see what clinics are available in your community and find out if they need volunteers. Hopefully they’ll provide mentors to oversee your work. But, if not, you can start with the guidance and materials available on the Beyond the Bar video program covering Planning and Launching a New Business: A Comprehensive Checklist.