It appears that a New York-style pro bono requirement for law students won't be going national anytime soon.
Several organizations and legal leaders have asked the committee that is updating the American Bar Association's law school accreditation standards to add a 50-hour pro bono requirement, but that idea got a chilly reception from the committee at its most recent meeting on Nov. 16 and 17.
None of the nine committee members in attendance endorsed the idea, which generated only a few minutes of discussion. Those who took a position said that requiring a certain amount of pro bono work is outside the scope of the ABA's accreditor role.
"My own thought on this is that meeting the need for legal representation should not be the goal of accrediting law schools," said committee chairman Jeffrey Lewis, a dean emeritus and law professor at Saint Louis University School of Law.
Erica Moeser, a committee member and the president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, agreed.
"I don't think the [ABA's accreditation standards] should be used by anyone as a vehicle for good works," she said.
Regulating pro bono work is well within the purview of the ABA, countered David Udell, the executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The current accreditation standards already require schools to "provide substantial opportunities to students" to perform pro bono work, and they also require each student to take a course in professional responsibility. Legal education needs to do a better job of exposing students to the pervasive and systemic problems of the legal system, he said.
"This is too big of an issue not to be attended to by the ABA in a deeper and better way," said Udell, who is among the advocates for a pro bono requirement. "It's a shame to see what appears to be a reflexive dismissal by the committee of something that is so important, and something that is already changing legal education."
The movement to have a pro bono requirement added to the ABA's accreditation standards is fairly new and grew out of the New York Court of Appeal's adoption in September of such a rule. That rule requires all applicants to the New York bar to complete at least 50 hours of pro bono service. That work can include legal representation of people who would otherwise be unable to afford a lawyer, work in the judiciary or state and local government, or work performed as part of a law school clinic (NYLJ, Sept. 20).
Proponents of a national pro bono requirement note that law students all over the country who aspire to practice in New York are already considering how to meet the new requirement, and several states, including New Jersey and California, are weighing the possibility of their own pro bono mandates.