New York Adopts Court Rule Detailing Pro Bono Requirement for Bar Admission

The New York Court of Appeals Sept. 14 officially adopted a rule requiring future applicants for admission to the state bar to perform 50 hours of pro bono service before they can be sworn in.

Under the new mandate, the pro bono requirement will apply to applicants admitted on or after Jan. 1, 2015, other than lawyers licensed elsewhere who are seeking admission without examination.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced the pro bono mandate during a May 2012 speech in which he touted the requirement as an innovative way to address an “access-to-justice” crisis while at the same time instilling and fostering a culture of service in newly admitted lawyers.

Reaction was mixed, with some observers calling the requirement unfair to young lawyers and others expressing concerns about its implementation, efficacy, and possible unintended consequences. See 28 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 305.

In conjunction with the new rule, Lippman released a report from an advisory committee that was appointed to address those concerns and propose regulations to implement the pro bono mandate. The committee said its recommendations were shaped by the feedback it received from law school deans, service providers for indigents, bar associations, students, and government lawyers.


Under the new rule, 22 N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. §§520.16, bar applicants other than lawyers seeking admission without examination will have to attest that they have completed 50 hours of “law-related” pro bono work for any branch of the government, indigent individuals, not-for-profit organizations, or groups that work to “promote access to justice, including, but not limited to, the protection of civil rights, civil liberties or public rights.”

The rule stipulates that the qualifying work may be performed outside of New York--including foreign countries--but must be done under the supervision of a law school instructor, an admitted attorney in the jurisdiction where it was performed, or a judge or attorney employed by a court system.

Qualifying work “may be performed at any time after the commencement of the applicant's legal studies and prior to filing an application for admission,” the rule states.

The advisory committee's report makes clear that pro bono work performed for a law school clinical program or during a summer job, internship, or externship can be counted towards the 50 hours--whether or not the student receives law school credit or a stipend or salary for that work.

Allowing such work to count toward satisfying the requirement had been a point of controversy, the report noted, but the committee concluded that “some of the finest programs with intense supervision that provide legal training in the public interest are the clinical programs operated by law schools.”

Participation in these programs should be encouraged, the report said. Disallowing enrollment in qualifying clinical programs, the committee added, would “significantly reduc[e] the supply of opportunities available to law students to satisfy this requirement.”

Praise and Lingering Concerns.

Benjamin P. Cooper, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law, praises the New York mandate in a forthcoming article for The Professional Lawyer, a quarterly publication of the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility.

In his article, Cooper asserts that the new requirement imposes relatively little burden and offers three principal benefits:  

  • First, it is an effort to address, at least in a small way, our country's access-to-justice crisis….  
  • Second, the new requirement fosters practical training, the very area in which critics (rightly) claim that law schools are lacking. On the margin, applicants for the New York bar will undoubtedly be better prepared for practice if they have performed fifty-plus hours of pro bono service than if they have not….  
  • Third, if lawyers do pro bono work in law school, they may be more likely to do pro bono work as lawyers. Professor Deborah Rhode refers to this as the “trickle up” effect.  


In an interview with BNA, Susan Hackett of Legal Executive Leadership LLC said she agrees that it is a good idea to inculcate in young lawyers “a sense that [pro bono service] is a qualification for admission.”

However, Hackett expressed concerns about a possible unintended consequence: the risk that a mandatory pro bono requirement could reduce the number of pro bono hours donated by lawyers. “You don't want to see a threshold set that becomes a ceiling rather than a floor,” she said.

Many law firms encourage attorneys to dedicate 100 or more hours per year to pro bono work, Hackett observed. It would be a shame, she said, if calculations about the appropriate level of pro bono participation were affected--consciously or not--by the new 50-hour requirement imposed on aspiring bar admittees.

'Continuity of Implementation.'

When Lippman announced the pro bono rule in May, he told BNA he hoped that “states around the country will replicate what we are doing in New York.”

The committee report commended Lippman for spearheading the effort and “making New York State an exemplar to the legal profession and the nation in encouraging pro bono service … by requiring a reasonable hours in pro bono work as a prerequisite to admission.”

“Having acknowledged that this is a groundbreaking proposal,” the committee said, “we recognize that the scope and implementation of the rule will require further assistance, and, perhaps, future revision.”

Accordingly, the committee said that Lippman asked it to remain in existence for two years, during which it will assist students, schools, and legal service organizations in implementing the program and evaluate their experiences in considering future changes to the program.

By Samson Habte  

Full text of the pro bono rule at

The committee report is at

Additional details are provided at

The ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct is a joint publication of the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility and Bloomberg BNA.

Copyright 2012, the American Bar Association and The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.