October 22, 2012

Cornell Law Students Should Easily Comply With New Pro Bono Mandate, Dean Says

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New York recently became the first state in the country to require that all law students applying to the state bar after Jan. 1, 2015, perform 50 hours of pro bono work — legal counsel provided at no charge — in order to be admitted. Though some law school officials and students have expressed concern, Dean of Cornell Law School Stewart Schwab said he is confident that Cornell law students will be able to meet, and even exceed, the charge of the new mandate — and in doing so, boost the status of the legal profession.

“Most of our students already would comply with this requirement,” Schwab said. “We’ve done a study that shows that, even without this requirement, over 90 percent of the students that just graduated would have complied because we do have a series of clinics, internships, and other opportunities that qualify.”

Schwab also emphasized the flexibility of the requirement, saying that the pro bono work can be performed “anywhere in the world, as long as it’s under the supervision of a licensed attorney.”

“Over half of our students will take a [clinical course], and many more work in public service their first summer after law school,” Schwab said. “In their second summer, others will work on pro bono projects at firms or government agencies, or clerk for judges, all of which can be used to qualify.”

Schwab said he hopes the mandate will “increase [the Law School’s] interaction with legal aid providers.”

Both Schwab and Prof. Susan Hazeldean, law, and director of the LGBT Advocacy Clinic, which provides free legal advice to LGBT people facing discrimination or harassment, said the mandate promotes lawyers’ public service work.

“Some people wonder whether ‘pro bono’ and ‘mandatory’ are oxymorons. While I sympathize with that view, I also think the requirement will reinforce that the legal profession is a service profession, and the symbolism of this — that applicants for the bar have to do public service — is an important concept,” Schwab said.

Hazeldean agreed, stressing the need for legal aid among many low-income defendants in New York State. Although the pro bono hours do not technically need to be completed in-state, Hazeldean said she thinks the mandate — which is projected to generate 500,000 additional hours of pro bono work annually — will contribute to addressing the “enormous justice gap we have in New York.”

“There’s a crisis in civil legal services. There simply aren’t enough lawyers providing services to low-income people,” Hazeldean said. “[The mandate] will encourage people who are joining the bar to take on and contribute to pro bono service as a professional responsibility.”

Though some law school administrators across the state plan to add staff to help students meet the new requirement, Schwab said he did not think this would be necessary at Cornell.

“We aren’t planning to hire additional staff,” he said.

Although he said compliance with the mandate should not be a problem for Cornell law students who are pursuing a Juris Doctor degree, he noted that the new policy may pose more of a challenge to students enrolled in the University’s one-year masters of law program.

“I am worried about the students in our one-year masters’ of law program, which is mostly aimed at international students, who come for just nine months, and won’t have the summer [to meet the public service requirement], as J.D. students do,” Schwab said.

Hazeldean agreed, conceding that others initially had some concerns before the specifics of the mandate were announced. Still, she said she believes that the majority of Cornell students will have no trouble fulfilling the requirement.

“I think the mandate … has been crafted in a way that should make it possible for all applicants to the bar to meet it,” Hazeldean said. “ Fifty hours is not a huge amount of time — it’s enough to make a meaningful contribution, but it should be manageable for most students.”

Cody Herche grad, who is currently completing his final year at the Law School, will not be be required to complete the 50 hours — the mandate will apply only to people who apply to the bar after Jan. 1, 2015. Still, based on his experience at Cornell, Herche agreed that students should be able to meet the requirement fairly easily.

“My understanding is that, since a lot of law schools already have clinical programs, which would qualify, most students are not that worried about fulfilling the obligation,” he said.

He added that he likes the “emphasis on volunteerism” in legal education.

“I think it’s absolutely important to open up the justice system to people who can’t afford quality legal representation,” Herche said.

Original Author: Sarah Meyers