NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman '68 announces new pro bono initiative

New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman ’68, a vigorous proponent of providing access to justice for all New Yorkers, held a press conference at NYU Law on December 2 to announce a new initiative clearing roadblocks to increased pro bono service. The move will allow the state's thousands of in-house corporate counsel to represent pro bono clients on their own without admission to the New York State bar.

Jonathan Lippman '68Lippman stressed the fact of New York’s position as a global corporate capital, with a roughly estimated 5,000 to 10,000 or more in-house counsel, a sizeable chunk of Fortune 500 headquarters, and more than two million incorporated businesses. He contrasted that with “the absolutely dire need for legal services for the poor,” a “justice gap” he has made great strides to address as chief judge.

In a September 2012 speech at NYU Law, Lippman had announced a new 50-hour pro bono service requirement for admission to the New York State bar. That initiative, in turn, had sprung from the work of Lippman’s Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York, which he had also heralded at the Law School, in 2010, appointing Helaine Barnett ’64 as the task force’s chair and decrying the severe shortage of legal aid statewide. Even with those previous efforts and others, such as a program recruiting retired or late-career lawyers to pro bono service and an influx of public funding for civil legal services, Lippman estimated that the state was addressing no more than 20 to 25 percent of such legal needs.

The new initiative aims to make a further dent in that deficit, he said, by allowing in-house counsel belonging to other state bars to register with the state and then be allowed to represent poor and underserved clients. Further, those lawyers would no longer be restricted to serving only through the auspices of a specific legal service organization or under the supervision of a New York-licensed attorney. The new rule changes, undertaken by an advisory committee chaired by Senior Associate Judge Victoria Graffeo of the New York State Court of Appeals, take effect this week.

Graffeo gave a brief overview of the process of the committee, followed by remarks from some of its other members. David Brill, president of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Greater New York Chapter, welcomed the changes. “The corporate law community has the skills and desire to provide free legal aid in underserved and in-need communities,” he said, adding, “These unnecessary restrictions do not recognize the competence and sophistication of in-house counsel.”

Randal Milch '85Randal Milch ’85, executive vice president of public policy and general counsel of Verizon Communications Inc., indicated that the pro bono victory in New York was just the beginning. “We will change those rules in other states,” said Milch. “This is the first step in a much wider set of victories that we will have on this particular rule.”

Steven Banks '81Speaking on behalf of overwhelmed legal service providers, Steven Banks ’81, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, expressed gratification for the impending arrival of further help. “We are ready, willing, and able to work with corporate counsel,” he said, “in terms of referrals, training, whatever it takes to continue down this road that Judge Lippman has set us on to make New York what it should be: an example for the rest of the country in providing access to justice.”

Lippman referred to underutilized “resources of talent” that New York State would continue to try to tap, and hailed the opening up of pro bono work to a greater number of in-house counsel as a major coup: “Isn’t it a tribute to the corporate spirit when you have the corporate community saying, ‘We want to do pro bono work, please let us do pro bono work,’ and the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’?”

Posted on December 2, 2013