New York will become the first state to require lawyers to do 50 hours of pro bono work as a condition for getting a license starting next year, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said Tuesday.
With about 10,000 people passing the New York Bar Exam annually, Lippman said that means about a half-million hours of free legal work yearly, mostly from law students. That should help fill "the justice gap" for the poor, working poor "and what has recently been described as the near poor" whose needs have risen sharply in a tough economy, he said.
"The courts are the emergency rooms of our society," Lippman said. Addressing lawyers, judges and other officials gathered for Law Day, he noted that only about 20 percent of the need is being met for civil legal services for the poor, though state support is up to $40 million this year and many lawyers already do pro bono work, now an estimated two million hours yearly in New York.
Currently no states require doing pro bono work as a condition of admission to the bar, according to the American Bar Association.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the pro bono requirement, as well as other measures Lippman has instituted for the state's courts, should help more families stave off mortgage foreclosures under better circumstances than the rest of the country. Since 2008, following the crash of the housing bubble, American families have lost $7.4 trillion in home equity, and foreclosures rose sharply, along with abuses like improper documentation and deceptive refinancing offers, he said.
"In fact about half of New Yorkers facing foreclosure do so without a lawyer," Schneiderman said. As part of a 49-state settlement with five major lenders, those banks agreed to establish new mortgage servicing standards and commit more than $25 billion. That includes $15 million that will be used this year in New York to fund legal services to prevent foreclosures, he said.
New York requires 90-day notices to borrowers at risk of foreclosure, settlement conferences and that lenders' attorneys sign affirmations that their documents are in fact accurate, a requirement in November 2010 that "drastically reduced" the number of foreclosure filings, Schneiderman said. Starting this summer, lender representatives at foreclosure proceedings will have to come with authority to negotiate, he said.
Lippman said he hopes that the pro bono requirement will generate ongoing interest in that work by lawyers who otherwise wouldn't do it, although 21 law schools nationally require it and most others have clinics where students can get experience doing free work under faculty supervision on issues like evictions, foreclosures, divorces and contracts, also possible at outside legal aid groups. "Pro bono service has been part of the professional lives of lawyers for centuries," he said.
"We're turning away eight clients for every nine that come in for help," Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief for the Legal Aid Society of New York City, said afterward. He said they take about 44,000 civil cases a year. "This initiative will certainly help," he said.
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