Starting next year, New York will become the first state to require lawyers to perform unpaid work before being licensed to practice, the state’s chief judge announced on Tuesday, describing the rule as a way to help the growing number of people who cannot afford legal services. The approximately 10,000 lawyers who apply to the New York State Bar each year will have to demonstrate that they have performed 50 hours of pro bono work to be admitted, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said. He said the move was intended to provide about a half-million hours of badly needed legal services to those with urgent problems, like foreclosure and domestic violence.
The need has exploded in recent years as the economic crisis delivered what advocates for the poor call a triple whammy: more people are struggling financially; more people need legal services to cope with foreclosures, evictions and credit and employment problems that could push them into long-term poverty; and state and federal financing for legal services has plunged. The Legal Aid Society, the nation’s largest provider of free legal services, turns away eight of every nine people seeking help with civil legal matters, said Steven Banks, the New York group’s attorney in chief. Since the economic downturn began in 2008, Mr. Banks said, requests for assistance have jumped 40 percent for health care issues, 54 percent for unemployment insurance and work-related problems, 16 percent for domestic violence and “a stunning 800 percent” for foreclosures. While criminal defendants have a constitutional right to free legal representation, defendants in civil cases — as well as people who need legal help for essential needs like applying for disability benefits — do not.
good: there is a dramatic lack of civil representation for low-income people, and since the outcomes of civil litigation are predominately determined not by truth or justice but by who has better access to and experience with the legal system, this lack of representation means they get screwed over by the institutions theoretically designed to protect them and their rights. because this work is so dramatically undervalued in the market, there need to be other incentives to create a sufficient supply of legal assistance.
bad: poor people aren’t practice clients for not-yet-lawyers who don’t know what they’re doing and aren’t inherently motivated to care about these clients or do a good job for them. competent representation in these issues, like any area of law, requires specialized knowledge that takes years to accumulate and refine.