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Mandatory Pro Bono: Is It Right for Law Students?


Recently, New York became the first state to mandate completion of pro bono work as a condition for bar admission. Under the new rule, New York bar applicants must perform 50 hours of pro bono work before they can be admitted to practice. Applicants can perform their pro bono service in any state, and can complete the hours any time between beginning law school and filing the bar admission application.

Other states may follow New York’s lead. Last July, the chief justices of the state courts issued a resolution encouraging law schools, in conjunction with state bar admissions committees, to require pro bono service. And in August, the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar considered whether law school accreditation standards should require law schools to impose mandatory pro bono hours as a condition of graduation. While that proposal was not adopted, the issue will probably be revisited in the near future. Current ABA Accreditation Standard 302(b) requires only that law schools offer “substantial opportunities for . . . student participation in pro bono activities.”

The idea of mandatory pro bono service during law school is not new. Before the New York rule took effect, several dozen law schools across the country already required their students to complete pro bono hours before graduation. Requirements range from 20 to 75 hours, and involve a diverse array of schools, including Columbia, Touro, Tulane, the University of Maryland, Hamline, Loyola Los Angeles, and Valparaiso. Many schools offer special service awards or transcript notations for students who complete more than the mandatory hours. Other law schools may offer support for students who perform pro bono service, such as administrative assistance or help finding or developing projects, but do not require students to complete a certain number of hours.

Proponents of mandatory pro bono argue that the requirement serves several purposes. First, law students can help address the significant unmet legal needs of economically disadvantaged people. In the process, students will experience first hand the consequences of unequal access to the justice system, an important component of their legal education. Further, some argue, public service is a fundamental ethical responsibility of legal professionals, and mandatory pro bono service during law school helps students develop the habit of service early in their careers.

Arguably, mandatory pro bono service also provides an opportunity for law students to enhance their experiential education and make connections in their local legal community. By working for legal services agencies, nonprofits, or other qualifying organizations, students get practical experience, build their résumés, develop specific skills like writing and interviewing, and learn about different types of legal practice.

Laren Spirer, Director of Pro Bono Programs at Columbia Law School, agrees that mandatory pro bono significantly enhances students’ legal education. “Even students who intend to practice in big law firms are curious about the place of pro bono work in their long-term careers,” said Spirer. “Our pro bono programs provide meaningful opportunities for students to explore options for service within the legal profession.” Spirer also noted that students come away from pro bono experiences with a sense of gratification that they can make a difference in people’s lives.

But some law schools have considered and rejected the idea of mandatory pro bono. For instance, Professor Sydney Howe-Barksdale, director of Widener Law’s Public Interest Resource Center, reported that Widener Law School considered, but rejected a pro bono requirement. Instead, Widener has chosen to create a voluntary pro bono program tailored to the specific culture of that school, in which pro bono work is connected to many aspects of the students’ experience. Further, Widener faculty members play an important supporting role by modeling engagement in public service work.

Critics object that mandatory pro bono does not effectively contribute to meeting the legal needs of the poor, should not be required of students when it is not required of their faculty or other lawyers, or is unworkable as a practical matter. In fact, empirical research suggests that mandatory pro bono work during law school does not enhance lawyers’ commitment to performing pro bono service once they enter practice. Further, most lawyers who performed mandatory pro bono service in law school do not believe the experience influenced their career choices or helped them get jobs.

On the other hand, research does suggest that law students found the experiences worthwhile, particularly because they helped participants learn about the legal needs of disadvantaged populations and helped them understand how the legal system works. Thus, in general, lawyers who performed mandatory pro bono work during law school believe they benefited from their experiences. While the impact on individual lawyers may be generally known, the benefits to the profession as a whole are not clear.

For schools that impose a pro bono requirement, several models are possible. Some schools offer opportunities through clinics or externship placements, and students may receive credit for the work they perform. Other schools reject the idea that students can receive either credit or pay for their required pro bono service hours. For instance, although the recent New York bar admission rule allows applicants to count pro bono hours students logged while working for pay at a law firm, those hours won’t count toward Columbia’s requirement.

Other schools partner with particular legal service organizations in their communities to provide placements for students to fulfill their hours, or offer students assistance in developing their own projects. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, four local law schools work in tandem with the Minnesota Justice Foundation (MJF), an independent organization that matches law students with pro bono projects in the metro area. Although only one of the area schools, Hamline, has a mandatory pro bono requirement, students from all four schools benefit from MJF’s assistance.


Vol. 42 No. 6

Mary Dunnewold is a legal writing instructor at Hamline University School of Law.

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