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Mandatory Pro Bono Coming to a State Near You?



Last year, the New York State court system announced a new 50-hour pro bono requirement for new attorneys who wish to be admitted to the bar. The requirement, now codified at N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 22, § 520.16, demands that all applicants admitted to the New York State Bar after January 1, 2015, “complete at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono service prior to filing an application for admission with the appropriate Appellate Division department of the Supreme Court.” The statute further specifies that that “qualifying pro bono service” must be supervised, and assist in the provision of legal services without charge for persons of limited means, not-for-profit organizations, or individuals, groups or organizations seeking to secure or promote access to justice (N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. Tit. 22 § 520.16(b)-(c).  For New York applicants, work in law school clinics and court clerkships or externships will count toward the required hour, and may be completed in any U.S. state. (See, Karen Sloan, Pro Bono Mandate Gains Steam, Nat’l L.J.(Apr. 22, 2013), http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202596770850).

It appears that California may be following New York’s lead, as the California bar’s Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform recently completed a draft report recommending the adoption of a 50 hour pro bono mandate, to be completed either during law school or the first year of practice (http://www.calbarjournal.com/March2013/TopHeadlines/TH1.aspx). Other states seem more hesitant; New Jersey’s State Bar Association passed a resolution opposing any pro bono mandate, though the state also has a task force exploring the idea. But, if California joins New York in demanding pro bono service prior to bar admission, it is possible the idea may take root in other states. One potential problem is that if states develop different requirements, it may be onerous for law students to prepare for admission in other states, especially if students are fortunate enough to have the option to work in a number of jurisdictions. There also must be consideration of how meaningful the legal work of the students would have to be to qualify for the programs, and how to ensure sufficient resources to supervise the legal work of law students. 

In Texas, there is no mandated pro bono service, either for admitted attorneys, or for applicants to the bar. A 2009 survey of Texas lawyers found that 52% performed free legal services that “substantially benefited the poor” (State Bar of Texas 2009 Survey of Pro Bono, at 9 ). Yet, even while most Texas attorneys provide pro bono service, substantial need remains. There is one Texas attorney for every 322 Texas citizens, but only one Texas Legal Aid attorney for every 10,838 indigent Texans (Patricia L. Garcia, Partnering for Pro Bono, 74 Tex. B.J. 422 (2011)), and it follows that the legal needs of many Texans are going unmet. Texas lawyers who perform at least 75 hours of pro bono legal assistance activities may join the state bar’s Pro Bono College, which was created to honor Texas attorneys and paralegals who far exceed the aspirational pro bono goals set out by the state bar (http://www.texasbar.com/Content/NavigationMenu/LawyersGivingBack/LegalAccessDivision/ProBonoCollege.htm). Word has it that the Pro Bono College will soon extend membership to law students who complete a substantial amount of pro bono service that is law related, uncompensated, and not performed for academic credit. Whether or not this will lead to mandatory pro bono service for bar applicants remains to be seen, but Texas will certainly benefit from more legal assistance from its soon-to-be attorneys.

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