Tuesday, 03 December 2013 19:00

NY Chief Judge Lifts Restrictions on Pro Bono Practice

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New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has announced a new rule intended to better supply legal aid to poor New Yorkers. Specifically, in-house corporate attorneys who work in New York but are not members of the New York State Bar will now be permitted to do pro bono work in New York civil and criminal cases. Previously, only attorneys licensed to practice in New York were able to volunteer their expertise without restrictions. The change is intended to widen the volunteer pool that groups like the Legal Aid Society draw on to provide legal assistance to New Yorkers unable to afford a lawyer. The New York Times reported that “the measure has broad support, not only from the state and city bar associations, but from several big businesses seeking to burnish their image.” Responsive Law likewise supports this development, but New Yorkers deserve more.

Responsive Law has long been a supporter of Judge Lippman’s efforts to facilitate poor and middle-class New Yorkers’ access to their legal system.  However, this rule change is minor compared to the scope of the problem. The Legal Aid Society took 48,000 cases last year, but they were forced to turn away eight times that number – over 300,000. Why? Because there are not enough lawyers to meet the demand for legal services.

This rule change is a positive development, but according to Judge Lippman’s own estimate, it will only increase the pool of potential volunteers by a mere 5,000 lawyers. This will barely make a dent in New Yorkers’ unmet need for legal advice.  More profound reforms are needed to give all New Yorkers access to their legal system. Responsive Law has a two-pronged solution to the problem. 

First, competent non-lawyers should be permitted to supply legal services. Currently, social service organizations’ attempts to assist New Yorkers in navigating the courts are stifled by the requirement that only attorneys may provide legal services. These organizations should be able to use people who have expertise, but not a law degree, to provide assistance to those they serve. Non-lawyers are perfectly capable of helping to navigate the court process, a service which in many cases will be more valuable than the full legal analysis offered by attorneys. Imagine how many people Legal Aid could help every year if their volunteers could receive a few weeks or months of training in a specific field, rather than needing to spend years and thousands of dollars to get a general-purpose law degree.

Second, New York should allow outside investment in legal service providers, which is currently prohibited. There may be ways for lawyers in the private sector to deliver their services more efficiently, bringing the cost of a lawyer within the reach of even poor New Yorkers. Services like TurboTax and H&R Block have helped millions of Americans by making accounting expertise cheaper and more widely available. Where is the innovator who will do the same for legal matters? They have been locked out of the industry by these outdated regulations.  New York, and likewise the rest of the United States, should look to the success of liberated legal industries in Australia and the UK, which have lifted the restrictions without harm to consumers. (For more about mass-market legal services, please see our testimony.)

The public’s need is too vast to be serviced by the small number of lawyers who work or volunteer in low-income legal assistance. Increasing the number of lawyers who are allowed to volunteer their services is a step in the right direction, but we must make great strides to provide justice to all New Yorkers.

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