Pro bono work is an indisputably positive activity — in theory. However, the specifics of a pro bono plan are not always so indisputable. That was made obvious by the recent proposal — and rejection — of a bill in California that would have required new lawyers to log a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono work before admittance to the bar.
‘Burden’ for new lawyers
According to published reports, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill No. 1257 because it would financially burden new lawyers, who often already are in debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars and not necessarily finding a job quickly after graduation.
As an idea, pro bono is a concept that Brown approves of heartily. However, due to the financial implications, he felt that legislators should instead focus on lowering the costs of attending law school and taking the bar exam.
The California bar did not take a stand on the bill, but earlier this year it approved internal task force recommendations on bar admittance, including 50 hours of pro bono work.
Following the California veto, New York remains the only state to have a mandatory pro bono rule. New law school graduates must do 50 hours of pro bono work before they will be admitted to the New York state bar.
A New York appellate judge reportedly proposed the mandate in order to address the fact that “only 20 percent of the civil legal services needs of New York’s low-income residents were being met” before implementation of the regulation.
What about seasoned attorneys?
The sentiment is certainly appropriate — that is, helping people in need. However, the implementation leaves something to be desired. Helping poor people by placing more burdens on what arguably can be considered another class of poor people — law students — is questionable, to say the least. Mandatory pro bono work makes legal education and licensing more expensive than it already is, and Brown was correct to point that out.
The idea of free legal work for the indigent would be more acceptable, too, if the same requirement were asserted for all lawyers, even the ones earning big paychecks. Requiring only newbies, who often are in debt and have little experience, seems arbitrary.
Of course, if anyone suggested that all lawyers should log pro bono hours, the concept would not be accepted; it would be shot down as a “not in my backyard” idea.
Pro bono work is a great idea. But, in fact, if the idea is really helping the indigent, then the pro bono work should come from experienced lawyers who are familiar with courts and systems and who can do the most good for the people needing the most help.
If we allow our new law school graduates to get a good start in the business of law and begin addressing their debt problems before they are saddled with more debt-inducing requirements, we will be helping a new generation of people become seasoned, financially sound lawyers, who will then have a greater capacity to help those in need.