New York chief judge names task force on pro bono work

John Feerick in Reuters, May 22, 2012

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NEW YORK, May 22 (Reuters) - New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman on Tuesday created a 15-member task force to help implement his proposal to require prospective New York lawyers to perform 50 hours of pro bono work.

The panel will be co-chaired by Victoria Graffeo, an associate judge on the state court of appeals, and Alan Levine, a partner at Cooley and former chair of the Legal Aid Society.

Others named to the committee include Fern Fisher, the deputy chief administrative judge for New York city courts; Steven Banks, the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society; and John Feerick, a former dean of Fordham University Law School. The presiding justices of the state's four appellate departments will also serve as ex officio committee members.

"Pro bono services are part and parcel of our legal culture," Lippman said as he made the announcement at a conference at Cardozo School of Law.

Lippman said the proposal, unveiled on May 1, is the first of its kind in the United States. It would require bar applicants to complete 50 hours of uncompensated legal work before receiving a license to practice in the state. "The eyes of the legal communities around the nation are on New York," he said on Tuesday.

The committee will give recommendations to Lippman and the four appeals court presiding justices, who head the committees that approve bar admissions, on how best to implement the proposal.

Among its areas of research will be how to structure student pro bono projects, how to incorporate law school clinics and other undergraduate and postgraduate programs into the pro bono requirements, and how to add access-to-justice issues to law school curricula.

The proposal has drawn praise from legal-service providers and court advocates, but some have questioned whether it can be deployed in a way that expands access to legal services while at the same time giving would-be lawyers hands-on training.

"The challenge is to implement a pro bono program that's both cost-effective and manageable but also a valuable learning experience," St. John's University School of Law dean Michael Simons said during a panel discussion following Lippman's remarks.

The proposal is expected to add 500,000 hours to the 2 million hours of pro bono legal services donated each year to help low-income people in New York state. Lippman estimated that only 20 percent of the need for civil legal services -- things like matrimonial and family court proceedings, consumer debt and residential foreclosures -- are currently being met.

About 2.3 million individuals appeared without any representation in civil legal proceedings before the state's courts last year, according to a recent report from the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York, created by Lippman in 2010 to study ways to provide civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers.

The committee will begin soliciting recommendations, questions and suggestions in the coming weeks via the New York state court system's website.