Yesterday, Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of New York, announced that those hoping to become members of the New York State Bar will have to prove they have completed 50 hours of pro bono work, making New York the first state to have such a condition. Recent economic struggles have caused huge cuts to federal- and state-funded legal aid programs; but they have also set up conditions such that thousands of people need inexpensive legal assistance for things like foreclosures, evictions, and credit issues. Lippman’s aim with this new requirement is to begin to close what he calls the “justice gap.” “The legal profession should not be seen as argumentative, narrow or avaricious, but rather one that is defined by the pursuit of justice and the desire to assist our fellow man,” he said in Albany yesterday.

Defendants in civil cases do not have a constitutional right to free legal representation, unlike criminal defendants, nor do those who need assistance applying for government benefits. According to the attorney in chief of the New York Legal Aid Society Steven Banks, the organization is forced to turn away eight of every nine people who come to them looking for, well, legal aid. The numbers of those seeking help have jumped dramatically since 2008: there now are 54% more requests for help with unemployment insurance and work-related issues, 40% more for issues surrounding health care, and an astonishing 800% more requests for aid for foreclosures.

However, some experts say the plan may cause as much controversy as benefit. Lawyers, too, are victims of the financial crisis and some fear that this will hit those entering the abysmal job market hard. Moreover, lawyers representing poor clients out of obligation may not be ideal representation. Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, which works with law firms on their pro bono services, told reporters, “Lawyers do not like being told what to do. I worry about poor people with lawyers who don’t want to be there.” Supporters of the measure pointed out that the entire requirement could be fulfilled in a weeklong internship students could complete on a summer break. (Photo: J. Stephen Conn/Flickr)