Mandatory Pro Bono Weighed as Disclosure Rule Is Criticized

, New York Law Journal


Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has defended requiring lawyers to disclose voluntary efforts to help the poor—a rule that is so unpopular among lawyers that the New York State Bar Association has decided to hire an attorney to look into challenging it.

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What's being said

  • Jill Zuccardy

    There is an enormous definitional problem. Large firm attorneys who do "pro bono" work, do so all the while getting their hefty pay checks. Certainly the firm is contributing pro bono services, but, while not denigrating the substantial efforts of individual law firm attorneys who participate in pro bono programs, the attorneys themselves are still getting paid. Large firms actually use "we will let you do pro bono work" as a recruitment tool. Solo practitioners and small firms who do true pro bono -- i.e., work for which they do not get paid and which takes away from the time they have to do paid work -- are lost in this proposal. Also, there are many, many, many solo practitioners and small firm attorneys who take on lower income clients and remain on their cases long after the client can pay, foregoing other work out of dedication to the client. And what about attorneys who cannot take on cases pro bono for financial reasons, but who contribute their knowledge and expertise through trainings and bar association participation which occur during non-court hours? In short, what "counts" as pro bono?

  • nothappyinnyc

    I have been practicing in a highly specialized area for 30 years - my expertise is of no use to indigent "clients" and I would be doing them a gross injustice if I attempted to represent them in a matter in which I have absolutely no experience, be it landlord-tenant, a Welfare or SSI dispute, divorce, child custody or any criminal matter. And since every client is entitled to competent counsel, where does that put me if I am required to give 20 or 40 or 50 hours of pro bono service annually? Does that mean I will be forced to make a monetary contribution to an organization like Legal Aid as an alternative? That will be awesome since I‘m already dipping into savings to pay taxes and the like as it is.

    I also would be a lot happier (or less annoyed and offended, truth be told) if the AMA instituted a requirement that all doctors are required to provide a certain amount of free medical attention and I don‘t see that happening any time soon.

  • Erin

    As a "young" attorney (less than eight years), I honestly can‘t understand why everyone is up in arms.

    First of all, nothing is mandatory except reporting whether or not we have lived up to the very long-standing goal of annual pro bono work. Save your energy for when and if they actually pass a mandatory pro bono rule!

    Second, I have a very busy practice, and I understand how hard it is to balance, but seriously, it‘s 50 hours every year - that‘s pretty much one name change petition and a community counseling session or two, or one housing court matter, or one petition for a restraining order and a simple will.

    I have a goal to have one pro bono client every year - someone who has a relatively simple matter, with merit, who wouldn‘t be able to get the legal redress they‘re entitled to without an attorney. But you don‘t have to take on a client - volunteer in housing court or one of the other court-related access to justice programs, like debtor-creditor cases, where you are only there for the day. Do five day-long community counseling sessions (that‘s less than one every two months) at a senior center or college or housing project.

    We are a very fortunate profession, indeed. Somebody else said we are the only profession where pro bono requirements are shoved down our throats. Not quite true, but unlike the medical profession, when someone needs legal help they can‘t just walk into an emergency room and be legally obliged to get help.

    This is a lot of wasted energy for people who don‘t have the time to do 50 hours of pro bono work every year, frankly.

  • So I guess I can call Lippman and ask him to pay off my law school loans, right?

  • not available

    While I am adamantly against mandatory pro bono, as well as the reporting requirements, I fear that this is a battle that, push comes to shove, we may lose. I have seen the 13th Amendment argument against this proposed before, I have also seen a counter-argument that the nature of our profession makes practicing law a "privilege" handed down to us by the State(s) that license us, and as such, we are required to abide by the terms imposed by that licensure. While I find that argument specious, I am afraid that the proponents of this water headed idea shall glom unto it.

    A counter argument is, of course, that we are not the only professional licensed by states so why are we unfairly singled out? Are doctors required to give of their services for free?

    I love the sound of ours being a "noble profession" however, lets not forget the second part of that, which is that it is a profession, which, according to Google, is defined as "a paid occupation, esp. one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification". The take away being, professionals get paid, or we stop being professionals.

  • not available

    Instead of donating to a pro bono cause (which I might consider), I‘m going to donate to any bar association that brings litigation to defeat Lippman‘s terrible unconstitutional plans.

  • not available

    I find it a terrible affront to democracy that the judiciary is able to pass legislation like Lippman is trying to do. What happened to the separation of powers between the legislature and judiciary?

    I also agree with the comments below critical of Lippman‘s actions. Let him pay everyone‘s law school loans and everyone will happily do pro bono work . Moreover, let Lippman -- who makes more money than I make (his salary is public) -- also pay for my kids‘ college bills and I‘ll happily do pro bono.

    Moreover, why does the pro bono requirement not apply to judges like Lippman?

    Finally, I find it almost big-brother like for the government to make me disclose to it how much money I donate to certain charities.

    In sum, Lippman, who has been a life-long bureaucrat, is a divorced-from-reality hypocrite. His proposals for mandatory pro bono are bad and the now-existing requirement that I disclose how much money I donate and how much work I do pro bono is even worse.

  • not available

    These are thoughts of a person so divorced from the reality of the practice of and business of law, and so divorced from the realities of life experienced particularly by younger members of the Bar in a market that, if it improved, could be graded as "terrible". The State should reconsider taking these responsibilities from him and giving them to someone who practices law on a daily basis.

  • not available

    I will happily do pro bono hours if Lippman agrees to pay off my 200k in student loans that I needed to take on to become a lawyer.

  • not available

    Prior comment hit nail directly on head: 13th Amendment anyone?

  • not available

    How about Chief Judge Lippman telling us all about how much he donated to pro bono legal activities--how much time, and how much of his Chief Judge salary? Why not put that on the forms on which we have to renew our license? Mandatory pro bono is slavery--period. What other profession has mandatory pro bono requirements? The real question is, when our Judicial "leaders" wax eloquent about pro bono is "Cui bono?"

  • not available

    CJ Lippman‘s motives and goal are noble and laudatory.

    After all, doesn‘t every lawyer wish in their heart of hearts to be able to do all their lawyering for free and have no financial obligations for rent, family, colleges, food and insurance. Go into a car dealership and drive out with a new car every 3 years without having to pay for it.

    Perhaps, the answer is Joe Biden‘s M.O. in the United States Senate: don‘t question motives.

    The Bar‘s spectrum provides the challenge: from Solos struggling to pay bills and some even dealing with personal foreclosures and bankruptcy, to White Shoe firms‘ average partner still able to get millions in profits per year.

    If you ask any lawyer, they will tell you they all do a huge amount of involuntary pro bono now - every time their bill goes unpaid or is cut down merely due to a client‘s inability or unwillingness to pay.

    So, perhaps, our CJ Lippman can make lemonade: allow all unpaid bill or to the extent discounted to be reported as "pro bono." It happens every day. Let every lawyer at least feel good, even when they got beat up on their bill.

    Imagine, if a lawyer aware of a client‘s hardship was to say: Mr. Jones, I know you want to pay my bill in full, but can‘t due to your hardship. Let me use part of my annual 50-hour Pro Bono voluntary obligation and give you a discount.

    The lawyer becomes a great human being; the profession becomes charitable; the Courts win by having the public think better of law, lawyers and the court.

    A win-win.

    Dated: 3/21/14
    Ravi Batra

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