To Be or Not to Be a Lawyer

Friday, May 04, 2012

Kris Fischer, editor-in-chief of the New York Law Journal, discusses a new requirement to do pro bono work in order to practice law in New York, and the broader question about whether to become a lawyer.


Kris Fischer

Comments [23]

Nancy Lustig from Port Jefferson, NY

At first blush, the idea of all lawyers providing pro bono work sounds like a positive idea. However, going to law school and passing the bar makes the individual a lawyer, but only technically. It takes years of experience for a person to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to provide important legal services without supervision.
It is difficult enough for the individual to get their career started and pay the bills. Imposing such a requirement on new law school grads is a heavy and unnecessary burden.

Why in the world would the pro bono requirement come at the very onset on one’s career? To be a truly valuable service, it should become a requirement perhaps at the TENTH YEAR (and other ensuing years) of being duly licensed when it is far more likely that the attorney will have both knowledge and EXPERIENCE to be of valuable assistance to the pro bono client. Offering a pro bono client an inexperienced lawyer is, AT BEST, a SHAM and at worst, highly unethical.

May. 09 2012 03:08 PM

I'm wondering if the reason Chief Lippman is predicting that " . . . the requirement will be the first of its kind in the country for admission to a state bar . . . " is that previous attempts at similar "confiscatory takings" have been ruled invalid? Have the WNYC reporter on the Court of Appeals beat ask the Chief why bastions of "Progressivism" such as California and Wisconsin have overlooked this obvious means to champion the indignant indigent?

"If you want the privilege and honor of practicing law in New York, you're going to have to demonstrate that you're committed to our values," Lippman said.

"Committed to our values" in this context means "being forced by the power of the state to participate in Jonathan Lippman's pet political project if you want to be a lawyer in the jurisdiction entry into which he controls." I could go on a rant here about how one of the unconscious ideological functions of legal education is to produce people who can say things like this without realizing that, in this context, "law" is completely indistinguishable from "politics," but as the kids say these days, whatever.

(3) As for kids these days, Jonathan Lippman paid about $10,000 per year in tuition in current inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars to attend NYU's law school in the late 1960s. He has spent his entire professional career as a functionary within New York's court system. I'm betting a Megamillions ticket that he doesn't have the faintest idea how preposterous it is, under current circumstances, to expect aspiring lawyers to work for free as a precondition for bar admittance in New York of all places. . ."

May. 06 2012 04:56 AM
2L from Manhattan

I would like to respond to the ongoing conversation on this program about student "debt" as it relates specifically to law school in New York City. Many, many of us are paying upwards of 200,000k to afford law school while living in Manhattan. The tuition itself is around 50k- and that is actually quite usual. The rest goes to rent and a few groceries every week. That means that the moment we are studying for the bar (and taking the $4k required Barbri etc. course to do so) we are STILL expected to pay rent, utiltites, groceries, soap etc. This is all without a strong likelihood - at this point - of finding employment. For those of us who are working in public interest, we have already decided that the skills that law school provides and the work that we can do subsequently, are valuable tools indeed. We have chosen to USE those skills to help OTHER people. That decision was not forced upon us. Further, it turns out that public interest sector is now FLOODED with applications from people who never would have thought of working in it previously but, because of the economic downturn and the ever increasing numbers of graduating lawyers (its aroun 45k+ a year now)- there are people trying to find any work they can. In other words, the legal profession should be restructuring its processes in hiring- adjusting to the changing market and discriminating on the bases of what people have done previously to show for their 'new found love for helping people'-- requiring some public service work is not a bad idea but its not enough, and it may serve to shoot new lawyers in the foot as they struggle to survive in this volatile economic market. Perhaps we should start with requiring all lawyers who make over a certain income bracket to clock pro bono hours and FIRMS should be required to count those hours, say, 50 per year- towards the hours people are expected to work. New attorneys should do it in their first year of law school AFTER they are hired, as incentive to keep their jobs and maybe the government should add something to the pie to encourage employers to hire people who have ideas about where to work and with whom. This could be a way to stimulate the start up economy for new lawyers - without penalizing them before they even get their first $1,200k a mo. (!!) bill from the education they just finished.

May. 05 2012 09:46 AM

What I missed in the discussion was that Chief Lippman's proposal is bereft of substance and detail, at least as it is presently presented in public. It sounds like the filler a professional politician or bureaucrat would use in a Law Day speech to draw cheap applause. The legal profession almost always demands more and is adept at demonstrating even that is inadequate to withstand challenge. The skeptical should only look to the recent, admittedly unfinished, history of another recent "government imposed mandate" proposed to meet the "necessities of the public good". Why would the requirement not be met by serving in as a legal representative at the general minimum wage (say $10 per hour) as opposed to the $150 to $300 per hour minimum of everyday attorneys? Would supervision be allowed by single practitioners or would it be available only through the large publicly contracted legal organizations (Legal Aid, Legal Services, etc...)? Whatever theoretical questions one might raised now, I hope we will not have to wait until after the plan is adopted to learn the details.
I expect Mr. Lehrer will be having at least one more segment on the proposal if the Chief is not forced to resign over some as yet to be discovered political scandal. Hopefully he will find the time to sit down with a group of law students and attorneys to prepare his interview so that he doesn't sound like such a "tribble".

May. 05 2012 01:35 AM
Mary from NY, NY

Just a bit of advice: For people who are interested in not practicing law, or deciding whether to change careers, or if you are considering law school but dont exactly know what you can do with a law degree, you should check out (no www. in front, just The site will be launching this summer. For now they have up a page where you can put your info to be notified when it does launch. According to the founders, who are JD's, the site will be full of information and insprirational interviews giving life-lessons and most importantly career advice, which as a JD, who has decided to leave the law and follow my dreams, I really need. Just thought it would be helpful for people like me who are looking for an alternative voice.

May. 04 2012 12:52 PM

@Edward from pretentious Hudson Heights:

What a spot-on critique of the legal-legislative-regulatory state!

May. 04 2012 12:23 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Todays litigious climate is like the anti-virus industry for computers.

Some people claim that the Anti-Virus companies are creating viruses that infect computers, so that people are forced to buy anti-virus software.

May. 04 2012 12:12 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

As we all know there is a pressing need for more and more and more lawyers.

There should be a national holiday to honor the every day lawyer who do the dirty, backbreaking, under paid work for all Americans.

May. 04 2012 12:03 PM

@Amy from Manhattan:

What you propose is as likely as the present Chines government allowing Chen Guangcheng to study law in the United States so that he can return to China to adequately represent women opposed to forced abortions.
The "system" is not being designed to serve peoples' needs. It is being designed to serve and shore-up the legitimacy of those who occupy its most powerful and remunerative (redundancy) positions.

Question: If the City council (of Embezzlers) ever passes a living wage provision for $10.00 per hour, why won't the brightest Bar applicants serve their time, and this will be a project that may take several generations at 50 hours per lawyer, working "pro bono" on the class action that brings the "equal protection" claim that it should apply to law interns, in the same way that it should apply to "interns" at "Dunkin' Donuts"?

May. 04 2012 12:02 PM
Kristin from Manhattan

Great article. I wish you would do a similar piece on architects!

May. 04 2012 11:57 AM
Truth & Beauty from Manhattan

1. Pay for law school with American Express. That way, law school pays YOU.

2. Making law students do pro bono work BEFORE they pass the bar is stupid as they're not lawyers until they've passed the bar. If pro bono work is going to be a requirement, a certain number of hours should be done each year as part of bar association dues.

3. Doing pro bono work assumes that one is a lawyer with the knowledge of a lawyer. That knowledge is not acquired until one interns in law firms with lawyers, which is why law students do summer internships, just as medical students do.

Therefore: If pro bono legal work is going to be done, it needs to be done by lawyers (people who have passed the bar) who have experience in the specific field required.

May. 04 2012 11:52 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Let's follow Shakespeare's dictum: "First thing, kill all the lawyers" for the "law is an ass."

May. 04 2012 11:47 AM

As for the loan burden for lawyers. If you decide to work for the government, or a nonprofit (including educational institutions) you are eligible for what is called and Income Based Repayment schedule for Federal Loans which adjusts your payments down to an affordable amount and then after paying for 15 years (full time or full time equivalent) the rest of the loan is forgiven.

May. 04 2012 11:45 AM
Film Industry Professional from Prospect Heights

What I am hearing sounds exactly like what is happening in the film industry. For years now people have been expected to perform professional services for free or very, very little pay. We are expected to have advanced technical skills, own our (very expensive) equipment and provide it without a rental fee, and sometimes even subsidize the projects of others (i.e. chip in for travel expenses and other needs.)

Brian, please consider hosting a program about the decline in employment in the film industry. No doubt many folks will get involved with this topic!

Thanks for doing the great work that you do for our city!

May. 04 2012 11:45 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Would it be possible to arrange for help w/student loans to law school grads who do pro bono work? That might be an even better incentive than requiring it for admission to the bar!

May. 04 2012 11:42 AM
Bob from Westchester

Let's face it -- the requirement is being placed on pre-lawyers because they have no power to resist, and there is not the political will to impose it on experienced attorneys who could easily afford the time.

May. 04 2012 11:41 AM
Ruthie from New York

Pro bono is a fantastic tradition for lawyers - it's a wonderful way to channel for-profit resources to assist individuals and organizations that cannot afford quality legal representation. Human Rights First, which runs a pro bono legal representation program for asylum seekers in NYC, NJ, and DC, very much supports the new requirement in NYS, and appreciates Mayor Bloomberg's leadership on this issue. Check out our statement -

May. 04 2012 11:41 AM

I see so many problems with this. For those going the firm route, many firms don't count pro bono as part of billables, and these associates are already working 90 hour weeks. For those going the public interest route, do they still have to do it, even though they are working for peanuts and in service to the public/disadvantaged? Could the requirement cause a conflict on interest with their professional work (and is it really in a person's best interests to divulge their legal problems to someone who's day job is as a prosecutor)? And if it benefits non-profits/public interest orgs, does that mean they will be less likely to hire attorneys who went to law school for the sole purpose of working in the public interest, because they can get other lawyers for free? I'm one of those people who went to law school to work for a PI org, and I've found that many are not hiring as large of a staff as they otherwise would because they get so many free people through firms' associate deferral programs. Which is great for the deferred associates (especially since the firms usually pay them more during that period than the PI attorneys working for the org are making), but, frankly, really sucks for those who went to law school with the intention of helping people and doing PI work, as we wait on the sidelines while people who will move on to make the bigs bucks do the work we're passionate about.

May. 04 2012 11:40 AM
john from office

I am in the legal field and have seen the change. It is much harder to make a living as a lawyer. I get calls everyday for work or a job. Market is flooded and the outsourcing to India is hurting the field.

May. 04 2012 11:38 AM

And of course, " . . . Steven Banks, attorney-in-charge for the Legal Aid Society in New York City, endorsed the plan. . . "

Principles notwithstanding, why aren't historically "libertarian" public law shops be just as likely to garner "draftees". First case, a challenge to the arbitrary and capricious "pro bono" requirements of the NYS Bar.

But I guess there will be some kind of "commission" (like the "hack" populated one for "Taxis and Limousines" that will determine "standard")

May. 04 2012 11:16 AM

Give me a break. I'll do pro bono work when I can find a job as a practicing attorney. Keep in mind that all unemployed lawyers also have to fork over a nice fee every year to stay in good standing with the bar. There is no hardship exemption for those who can not find work.

When there are jobs and people are not waiting tables, they might be more willing to accept additional requirements on them to remain "lawyers."

May. 04 2012 11:03 AM

Oh, snap!

(Notice the "well justified" self-serving exceptions to the mandate-draft.)

May. 04 2012 10:55 AM

Is it accurate that Sheldon Silvestein's favorite boyhood poodle, New York State's Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman, is a major backer of this uncompensated labor draft? ( ; )

Now, no one could seriously condemn the idea or practice of "public health clinics" simply because the German government supported them from 1932 through 1945. But the fact that government officials did not themselves participate in those programs could provide insight into their quality.
I would suggest that Lippman and his patrons have, as we say in Brooklyn, "never done nothing for nothing".

The burden being off-loaded to the single-practioner bar will make itself apparent as an "unexpected", "structural" handicap in the future. But like the young who used to be drafted to die in the foreign adventures of their altruistic elders, those most immediately affected have no effective voice.
(see e.g., )

But hey - "free, i.e., no cost to the recipient" services and products mandated or supported by governmental monopolies and guilds - are all the rage now.

May. 04 2012 10:50 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.