Monday, March 16, 2015

California Bar outdoes Wisconsin Bar with mandatory pro bono requirement

The Wisconsin Bar recently conducted a dues-funded study demonstrating the obvious: (1) many new lawyers were drowning in debt and couldn’t find law-related jobs; and (2) many of these new lawyers were afraid to hang their own shingle because they were never trained to practice law and feared committing malpractice.  I then mocked the Wisconsin Bar when, shortly after its study, it sent out an unrelated email suggesting that new lawyers reduce their anxieties by doing unpaid legal work for real clients.  But as clueless as the Wisconsin Bar was, the California Bar may have just topped it.

California is considering a bill that would require new lawyers to do free legal work for real-life, low-income clients.  As this article points out: “some question whether untrained law students and recent law graduates” are in the best position to provide such services.  But in addition to being dangerous to the clients, these new, untrained, and often unemployed law school grads are in a bad place financially, and shouldn’t be burdened with doing unpaid work.  For example, two of California’s lower-ranked law schools sent their average graduate into the dismal job market with well over $150,000 in law school debt (and this probably does not include their college debt or their accrued interest on the law school debt).

Way to go, California!  In the long tradition of mandatory bar associations you are, true to form, working against your own membership!  You are taking the weakest of your ranks — soon-to-be members and new members, many of whom are unemployed, drowning in debt, and completely unskilled in the practice of law — and forcing them to “give back” to “the public” or “the community” in exchange for “the privilege” of being a lawyer.  (Feel free to replace the buzzwords in quotations with whatever buzzwords are commonly used in California.) 

The actual proposal (found here) appears to be disguising the fifty-hour pro bono requirement as lawyer education.  To this, I have several objections.  First, if this is really education, why are you letting law graduates perform the fifty hours after their admission to the bar and after you have already deemed them competent to practice?  Second, if law graduates are poorly trained, you should be working on real, top-to-bottom reform of the legal education system instead of trying to pass this inadequate Band-Aid.  And third, according to the article, it appears that the legal aid clinics in California don’t want to do law professors’ jobs for them, i.e., they don’t want to train your state’s new lawyers.

More specifically, it appears that the indigent defense organizations would rather your state’s unemployed and untrained law graduates stay far, far away: “While legal organizations would like to put law students and recent law grads to work on pro bono assignments, they need to train and supervise them and provide office space.  Currently, only 10 percent of the law students who apply to volunteer at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles are accepted, because the group doesn’t have resources to oversee more[.]”

My suggestion, then, is that the California legislature should put this mandatory pro bono proposal on the scrapheap and send the Cal Bar Task Force back to the drawing board.

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