They Meant Well

     It’s not easy being a critic.
     At least not if you have some semblance of a conscience. You see someone trying to do a good thing, but you also know it’s a disaster-in-waiting. How can you point this out without seeming mean?
     Case in point: The New York Court of Appeals has instituted a new requirement – one that may be a first in the U. S. – for admission to the bar: 50 hours of pro bono work.
     It’s seems like such a well-meaning idea, but….
     Where do I begin?
     Let’s start with the easiest target. Check out section 520.16 (d) of the New York Judiciary Law:
     “Location of pro bono service. The 50 hours of pro bono service, or any portion thereof, may be completed in any state or territory of the United States, the District of Columbia, or any foreign country.”
     The problem is pretty obvious. Who will represent indigent astronauts and Martians? What about legal problems at sea?
     There’s just no reason for the service opportunities to be so limited in scope. Some day a lunar pioneer without a lot of money is going to need to establish an easement across a corporate-owned crater and there will be no one to offer free legal help.
     But I realize that’s being picky. The macro issue is the economic impact of hundreds of free would-be lawyers roaming the streets looking for work they can do for free.
     There already isn’t enough work for all the real lawyers out there. Now they’re going to be underbid by law students who are required to charge nothing.
     Maybe the idea is to drive lawyers out of work so they can be replaced by new lawyers. That way law schools can stay in business because there will be jobs for their graduates.
     I worry a bit, though, about the recipients of this legal largesse. Do poor people need representation by guys with absolutely no experience who may not have finished law school?
     Is this a way to convince poor people to stay out of the legal system? It could be effective.
     Ah, but the new rule also says the pro bono worker must be supervised by a judge, lawyer, or law school instructor.
     So now we have a rule that requires just as much work from lawyers, judges and/or professors who have to supervise the people working for free. Wonder how much they’re going to be paid?
     Wonder, for that matter, how easy it will be for thousands of law students to find supervisors – who also have to certify “affidavits of compliance?”
     I can hear the complaining even now all the way out in California.
     And who’s going to pay for the malpractice insurance for these pro bonors? (Yes, I know pro bonors sounds obscene, but what else would you call them?)
     Who’s going to be able to afford the malpractice insurance? Picture the actuarial tables. Consider the likelihood of payouts.
     And how did the New York court come up with the magic number of 50 hours? What happens if you hit the 50-hour mark in the middle of a case? Do you stop? Do you refuse to take on anything that might take too long?
     I’m picturing stop watches at work.
     Finally – and you know this is going to happen – there will be litigation over what qualifies as pro bono work.
     Oh sure, it’s defined in the new rule but that’s not going to stop the quibbling. For example, what exactly is a person of “limited means.” My definition would be someone who’s fairly nice.
     (If I have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.)
     Personally, I’d rather see a pro bono requirement for actual lawyers who might know what they’re doing. It could be a substitute for required continuing legal education classes in courtroom macramé technique or the ethics of lunch with witnesses.
     At least the litigation over what’s required would probably start sooner.

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