[M]ore people are struggling financially; more people need legal services to cope with foreclosures, evictions and credit and employment problems that could push them into long-term poverty; and state and federal financing for legal services has plunged.
So writes Anne Barnard in the Times. She's right.
And it's not just those civil cases where people need lawyers but have no formal right to them. The criminally accused have a right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, but that right is too often barely met if at all.
We're a nation vastly overlawyered with thousands of new lawyers each year, many of them saddled with nearly insurmountable debt and no jobs. Yet there's a deep and ever-increasing pool of folks who desperately need but cannot obtain legal services.
There's something wrong with this picture.
Courts encourage lawyers to take on cases pro bono to help out. Bar associations encourage lawyers to take on cases pro bono to help out. The big law firms have pro bono departments to help out. And, of course, lots of lawyers take cases pro bono because it's the right thing to do.*
Here and there around the country there's a mandatory pro bono program of one sort or another. And in many places (Barnard mentions New Jersey and we've previously encountered New Orleans but it happens in many places and many ways), lawyers are sometimes conscripted for cases.
But it's not nearly enough.
Enter New York's Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman who made it public yesterday. As Barnard reports, beginning in 2013,
The approximately 10,000 lawyers who apply to the New York State Bar each year will have to demonstrate that they have performed 50 hours of pro bono work to be admitted, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said. He said the move was intended to provide about a half-million hours of badly needed legal services to those with urgent problems, like foreclosure and domestic violence.
Carolyn Elefant says this is terrible.
There’s so much wrong with this proposal that I scarcely know where to start. But given that law students are graduating deeply in debt, shouldn’t they focus on paying work – even if it’s at a Starbucks or pizza parlor – rather than working for free. Moreover, if students or new grads are going to work for free and haven’t yet found a job, isn’t it more sensible for them to spend their time finding paying work than doing pro bono?
I'm a bit confused by that last sentence but she's on to something. Lippman says it's just a week, but when you have no money and no prospects, well
And I'd note the irony that the requirement that the 1% perform pro bono (because the 99% don't do enough of it ) was announced on a day when the Occupiers were marching and clamoring. Carolyn didn't make that particular observation, but she did note the broader irony.
As a New York licensed lawyer myself, I am outraged and offended that wealthy lawyers are passing the buck to those just starting out.
But it was in response to a comment by Karen Eichman that Carolyn got to the real point. Eichman wrote:
What kind of pro-bono work is a new graduate required to perform in order to obtain admission? I would think they cannot do pro-bono legal work, as doing so would be practicing law without a license.
To which Carolyn responded:
Good point. Maybe NY thinks that the poor don't need licensed lawyers.
The already licensed will happily ensure that the
unwashed unlicensed lawyers do the work of licensed lawyers brilliantly, carefully overseeing the half million hours a year performed by those 10,000 would-be lawyers. The Times makes that clear in an editorial.
Like many states, New York allows law students to perform legal work under the supervision of faculty members or legal services groups.
You'll excuse me if I'm not sanguine.
Look, there's a desperate need for lawyers to provide legal assistance to the poor. It's a need that we, as a society, are demonstrably unwilling to meet if it requires actual resources. It's a need that we, as lawyers, are either incapable or unwilling to meet.
It's a need for lawyers, for people who know what they're doing (one wishes all lawyers did), for people who care about what they're doing (one wishes all lawyers did), and for people who are, well, lawyers.
Pro bono publico is Latin.
It means, "For the public good."
Which is sometimes expressed, though not, as it happens by Marie Antoinette, as "Let them eat cake."
*There is, of course, a PR element to all (or at least much) of this, too, of course: See, lawyers aren't sleazy. We're noble. Look at all we do for the needy. And you think we're only out to line our pockets. Hah! We'd starve ourselves for the public good.