Is a law license no better than a driver’s license?

Judge Lippman, Chief Judge of the New York Appeals Court, announced a pro bono requirement to gain admission to the New York Bar. Every new lawyer will have to prove their performance of 50 hours of pro bono practice before being admitted to the New York state bar. Mandatory pro bono is now a reality in New York.

He said, "If pro bono is a core value of our profession, and it is—and if we aspire for all practicing attorneys to devote a meaningful portion of their time to public service, and they should—these ideals ought to be instilled from the start, when one first aspires to be a member of the profession."

His first error of judgement, in my opinion, is to conclude that pro bono is a "core value" of the legal profession. While many lawyers "give" many hours freely of their time and expertise, it is not the essence or "core value" of the legal profession. This has been substantiated many times over when bar associations call on their members to provide free services for low and moderate income people. Many do step up to the plate. But, not all. Thus, it’s obviously not a core value of the profession.

He then said that "We think that if you want that privilege, that honor of practicing law in the state of New York…then you are going to have to demonstrate that you believe in our values." He is really saying that if you want to practice law in NY, you better meet my values. Interesting that he says that practicing law is a privilege, not a right. Seems as though we’re taking a test to get our driving license. Driving a car is a privilege and in order to get you on the streets, you need certain requirements. I guess Judge Lippman equates getting a law license with a driver’s license.

Why does this new requirement apply only to new lawyers? Why doesn’t this requirement apply to all lawyers in NY, even those who have been practicing for a few years? Judge Lippman’s excuse for this discriminatory practice is that existing lawyers’ practices are very diverse and some lawyers already are having difficulty earning enough money to put food on the table. Thus, they should be excused from this requirement. The real reason is that the Judge would have a rebellion on his hands if he tried to spread the requirement to all present lawyers in the state.

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