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Bar News - December 14, 2012


NY Judge Lippman, in NH, Touts Pro Bono Rule


Senior US Circuit Court Judge Norman Stahl (center) shares a light moment with (left) Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the NY Court of Appeals and UNH Law Dean John T. Broderick, Jr.
Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, shared his vision of equal access to the legal system as the inaugural speaker of the Norman H. Stahl Lecture Series last month at the UNH School of Law’s Social Justice Institute.

New York’s top judge, Lippman is well-known – some might say notorious – in legal circles for his groundbreaking initiative requiring 50 hours of pro bono work from those aspiring to practice law in the State of New York. Speaking to an audience that included state and federal judges, attorneys, law school faculty and students, as well as the Hon. Norman Stahl himself, Lippman talked passionately about an obligation on the part of attorneys to help close "the justice gap" – generally defined as the chasm between the civil legal needs of low-income people and existing resources. In his introductory remarks, John Broderick, dean of the law school, cited the rise in pro se litigants as a symptom of a struggling economy that has hit the most vulnerable members of society the hardest.

Judge Lippman has made this problem a priority, holding hearings since 2009 to assess and quantify the unmet legal needs in New York courts.

"Data leads to funding," he said, and explained that despite deep cuts to his state’s judiciary budget, New York has sustained initiatives for legal aid and access to the courts for people in need. Lippman added that it is "not enough to keep the doors open, if what happens inside the court does not promote equal justice."

Some in the legal community have said the pro bono requirement could burden new lawyers in a tough economy, which has led to an increase not only in the demand for civil legal services, but also in the total number of people who qualify for them. Others have expressed concern about the cost of overseeing volunteer programs and the work of prospective attorneys, who must be under the guidance of experienced lawyers as they perform the required service hours.

During his talk, Judge Lippman addressed some of the criticisms, pointing out that the standards for pro bono service in New York were broadened to include a variety of public and community service activities, that foreign students could do some equivalent type of work in their own communities, and that current third-year students are exempt from the rule, which goes into full effect in 2015. He dismissed concerns about cost and oversight as negligible.

Lippman insisted the new mandate is not a prelude to mandatory pro bono for all attorneys in New York. He acknowledged that there are significant practical, ethical, logistical and constitutional barriers to requiring all active attorneys to do pro bono work. He said the 50-hour requirement for those entering the profession is simply a way to inculcate a culture of service in the next generation of attorneys.

Judge Norman Stahl, whose current and former law clerks filled several rows of the auditorium, joined Judge Lippman at the podium and reminisced briefly about a time when there were only about 400 members of the New Hampshire Bar. He recalled that pro bono work was very much an ad hoc matter in those days, with someone stepping up as needed to help low-income litigants. Stahl, a judge in the US District Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, said that approach to providing civil legal services is no longer feasible and praised the efforts of Judge Lippman to meet the challenges facing today’s judicial system.

A reception the law school co-sponsored with Devine Millimet, where Stahl practiced for many years before his judicial appointment, followed the lecture.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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