Commencing next year, New York will become the first state to necessitate lawyers to perform unpaid work before being licensed to practice, the state’s chief judge announced lately, describing the rule as a way to help the growing number of people who cannot afford legal services. 

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman stated that the just about 10,000 lawyers who apply to the New York State Bar each year will have to demonstrate that they have performed 50 hours of pro bono work to be admitted. He stated that the move was intended to provide about a half-million hours of badly needed legal services to those with vital problems, like foreclosure and domestic violence. 

The need has exploded in recent years as the economic crisis delivered what advocates for the poor call a triple whammy: many people are struggling financially; many people need legal services to cope with foreclosures, evictions and credit and employment problems that could push them into long-term poverty; and state and federal financing for legal services has plunged. 

In his three years at the helm of the state’s court system, Judge Lippman has made New York a national model and has been praised in the legal profession by addressing what he calls the justice gap, allotting millions of dollars from the courts’ administrative budget for free of charge legal services and making it easier for retired lawyers to take pro bono cases. 

But his newest measure may prove more controversial, as it wades into a stern debate among lawyers over whether compulsory pro bono service is the correct solution and because it could hit the pocketbooks of young lawyers at a time when they are struggling to find jobs.