NY’s New Pro Bono Requirement Discriminates Against Solos And is Unfair to New Lawyers

File this one under what were they thinking. Now, as a condition of gaining admission to the New York Bar, new graduates (and presumably, new admittees from other jurisdictions) must perform 50 hours of pro bono work, reports the
New York Law Journal.

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?

Second, who’s going to supervise all of this unpaid labor? Have we forgotten that at the height of big law layoffs, displaced associates and unemployed lawyers flooded legal aid offices and couldn’t find work for free. Why should it be different now?

Third, why in the hell is our profession imposing this requirement on new lawyers? Isn’t it enough that many of the lawyers of my generation or older completely wrecked the legal profession by racking up huge profits-per-partner with a sense of arrogance that blinded them to the possibility that the highly leveraged model could ever fail. But fail it did, flooding the market with new lawyers in debt and need of employment, fighting over the handful of document review that weren’t sent overseas. How dare we more experienced lawyers take our money and run, while forcing younger and newer lawyers to pick up the slack. As a New York licensed lawyer myself, I am outraged and offended that wealthy lawyers are passing the buck to those just starting out. Pro bono may be one of our professional obligations, but so too is training and mentoring and helping the next generation of lawyers – not making them the fall guys for our mistakes.

Although this ill-conceived program adversely impacts all lawyers, needless to say, it harms solo lawyers most of all. The New York Bar President anticipates that some new graduates will satisfy the pro bono requirement after they’ve taken the bar exam and have started working in paid positions. Uh – new solos don’t have that luxury – starting out, many solos will take any work to make ends meet as they prepare to start a firm. While it’s true that taking a pro bono or CLE can help new solos gain training, if a solo to be has a chance to do paid work for a lawyer, he or she need to jump on it because there’s no telling where the next pay check will come from.

Moreover, the Bar’s proposal fails to acknowledge that new solos, by virtue of being solo, perform far more than 50 hours of pro bono work annually. Solos handle court-appointed cases which don’t pay much; they often accept clients at reduced rates either to get business through the door, or as a favor to another lawyer to open up referral opportunities. Maybe a small percentage of New York lawyers go on to high paying jobs at big firms, but many others, particularly solos are picking up the slack merely by offering an affordable alternative. And they’re doing it more than 50 hours a year.

Don’t get me wrong – I personally believe that lawyers have an obligation to do pro bono work. Some of the highlights of my own career have involved pro bono matters
that I took on voluntarily and that I was fortunate enough to be able to subsidize either through employment or revenue from my practice. Not all lawyers are as lucky.

So to my colleagues in the New York bar, in academia and big law and thriving small practices, I say this: charity begins at home. All around us, there are young lawyers, heavily in debt and desperate for a chance. Over the years, I’ve tried to hire as many as I can – for paid blogging gigs, small-scale research or running errands around the town. It’s not much, but in many cases, the line item that I’ve served on a resume has helped newbies move on to bigger and better things. The New York bar doesn’t need to look to the streets and the shelters to help others when there are other lawyers in need right under their noses. If we give them a chance and help them along, trust me, they will pay it forward — and the problem of access to law will take care of itself.