In recent decades, pro bono work done by law firms and, more recently, by in-house counsel at corporations, has been a focus of surveys, articles, and studies galore. Yet there is an additional population that is contributing a significant number of hours to the provision of legal services to some of the United States’ most vulnerable individuals, and they’re not even admitted to practice law -- yet.
Separate and apart from work they may be doing as part of their academic coursework, like clinics, students at our nation’s law schools are actively engaged in pro bono under the supervision of admitted attorneys in a wide variety of projects. At least 39 schools have a mandatory pro bono graduation requirement, and scores of others have voluntary pro bono programs. Students engage in client intake and interviews, stand up in court pursuant to student practice orders, work with attorneys on drafting wills, and assist in preparing documents for non-profit incorporation. Many even travel domestically and abroad to do pro bono projects over spring break. The idea of introducing pro bono early on in a young lawyer’s career -- in fact, before it even truly starts -- stems from the notion that it is both desirable and possible to teach the next generation of lawyers the importance and value of pro bono. By exposing students to the legal issues that many individuals without access to legal services are facing and showing them first-hand how they can have an impact, even as first-year law students, the hope is that their pro bono experiences will propel them to continue pro bono work throughout their careers.
New York has developed two innovative projects designed both to introduce pro bono to law students and to increase access to justice for low-income individuals. In May 2012, Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced a rule requiring 50 hours of pro bono work for state bar admission. In addition, Lippman created the Pro Bono Scholars Program (PBSP), entering its third year in 2017. The PBSP allows third year law students to work full time at an approved pro bono placement in conjunction with a related academic seminar at their law school. Students take the bar exam in February, begin their placements immediately following, and pending successful completion of the program, all graduation requirements and passage of the bar exam, the scholars receive expedited bar admission, giving them a practical leg up on their careers.
Other states in the United States are currently exploring pro bono bar admission requirements, and the Pro Bono Scholars Program, formerly limited to students in New York, will be open to out-of-state participants for the first time in 2017. Law student pro bono is having an impact, both in increasing access to justice, and in guiding our future generation of lawyers towards pro bono participation throughout their careers.