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CanLII, Slaw

Carl – a new name in the promotion of access to justice

Call me Carl.

For a week in August, I played the role of law student intern to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. My kids were thrilled because it meant they could call me Carl – just like the student intern to Major Monagram on the Disney XD cartoon Phineas and Ferb. While I was not blessed with a theme song like my namesake, I did get a great experience and possibly an early peek on New York state’s latest advance in the promotion of access to justice.

Carl the InternIt was only weeks after my experience that I read of New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and his order implementing a mandatory 50-hour pro bono requirement for applicants to the New York state bar set to take effect January 1, 2015. Like Carl, my internship earned me “college credit” in the context of my LL.M. studies in law and technology at the University of Ottawa (I confess to not knowing Carl’s major).

Since my arrival at CanLII, in each fall and winter term I have hosted students from U of Ottawa’s law and tech JD program (which I suppose would make me Major Monogram). Before learning of the New York initiative I hadn’t thought to frame these arrangements, from either side of the intern process, in the context of improving access to justice. I have been somewhat short sighted in failing to equate student contributions to a not-for-profit with access-to-justice imperatives to the pro bono work students do in the form of direct advocacy in legal clinics.

We are well aware of the benefits student legal clinics like Community and Legal Aid Serivces Programme (CLASP), Student Legal Services Edmonton, Pro Bono Student Canada and others across the country bring to the communities they serve. Clinic work like this is a mainstay of the law school experience for the contributions made, the values instilled and the practical experience gained. Logically, work of this nature will count toward the 50-hour requirement in New York, but were I desirous of writing the New York state bar exams in 2015, would my time at the LII count? It appears so.  In fact, so would the work undertaken by CanLII’s interns past and present (Hi Azrin, David and Adam!) should they apply to the New York state bar.

You can find the directive, § 520.16 Pro Bono Requirement for Bar Admission, here in the New York Law Journal, but allow me to hit the highlights:

  • applicants “shall complete at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono service prior to filing an application for admission”
  • pro bono service is “supervised pre-admission law-related work” for the benefit of persons of limited means, not-for-profits, or “individuals, groups or organizations seeking to secure or promote access to justice, including, but not limited to, the protection of civil rights, civil liberties or public rights”; as well as specified work within the public service (including courts, legislatures, government). “Partisan political activity”, however, is expressly excluded.
  • authorized supervisors include law professors, lawyers, and judges
  • permitted locations include “any state or territory of the United States, the District of Columbia, or any foreign country”
  • the relevant time frame for completion is from the start of your legal studies to the date of your NY state bar application.

I am struck and impressed by the flexibility and the reasonableness of these requirements. As Judge Lippman notes:

“If you build houses for Habitat for Humanity, that doesn’t count, but if you do legal work for a non-profit like Habitat for Humanity, that could count.”

I also share the Chief Judge’s sentiment that the requirement “will set the pace in the country. On every level it makes sense, for new lawyers, for the profession as a whole, for the legal services providers, for the judges.”

Professor Adam Dodek has written previously about the prospect of seeing the NY model of mandatory pro bono imported into Canada. He and others reported on the trepidation and concern surrounding the whether, how and when it could or should occur in Canada. Quite frankly, after reading the specific requirement recently adopted I have zero concern about negative effects of pursuing this course in Canada – whether through a court mandate or a voluntary move on the part of the law societies. I also feel there is nothing stopping the legal community from moving ahead without waiting the courts or regulators to address the question.

Why wait?

A 50 hour requirement over the course of a 3 year law program is nothing, just ask the CLASP, SLS or PBSC volunteers how many hours they put in over a single month. For students inclined towards a different environment than a public facing legal clinic or to whom formalized internships are unavailable, the challenge for the student will not be in finding 50 hours, but in finding a person and organization ready to let them make their contribution. The greatest and perhaps only hurdle to following New York’s lead rests with those organizations and individuals who will need to make room for “Carl”.

It takes time to provide clear direction, valuable experience and a supportive environment to a student intern. Not quite the burden of supervising an articling student, of course, but a serious endeavour nonetheless. For those of us engaged in activities that seek to advance causes of social justice, whether as part of an organization or as an individual representing a single client, it is worth examining our capacity to take advantage of willing and able student resources.

My ultimate point is this: as anyone who has done it or supervised it knows, “pro bono” work by law students is quite simply a good thing and all students should have an opportunity to engage.  We need not wait for top down solutions and as many formal and informal relationships already exist through which law schools facilitate student placements, I would like to think we are all capable of doing more.

Carl stands ready to serve, will you provide the opportunity?

[This post originally appeared on Slaw.ca]

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