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Law students, profs debate required pro bono work

New York recently became the first state to require law students to volunteer.

Paula Polasky went to law school because she wanted to make a difference.

Now in her third year at the University of Minnesota Law School, she’s done extensive legal volunteer work, including a weeklong trip to El Paso, Texas during her first year to help research immigration cases.

“I think it bolsters our profession, showing people we are engaged in the community,” she said.

The University Law School encourages and awards this type of work but doesn’t require it. However, some law students — including Polasky — think it should.

On Wednesday, a ruling by the New York Supreme Court made New York the first state to require law students to perform 50 hours of pro bono work before applying to practice law.

The requirement, which will apply to applicants to the New York bar beginning January 2015, is meant to alleviate the need for civil legal services in New York.

In 2011, 21 U.S. law schools required their students to do pro bono work, according to a survey by the American Bar Association.

Of about 200 students who graduated from the University Law School in May 2012, 94 completed at least 50 hours of law-related volunteer work.

This amount of work is a reasonable requirement, said Carol Chomsky, a professor at the University Law School.

“Many students would easily meet it, and it just reinforces the importance of doing that kind of work,” she said.


A unique Minnesota program

All four Minnesota law schools — the University of Minnesota, Hamline University, University of St. Thomas and William Mitchell College of Law — provide legal volunteering opportunities through a partnership with the Minnesota Justice Foundation.

MJF is a nonprofit organization founded in 1982 by law students in Minnesota. It provides students with a database of volunteer opportunities as well as advising from a staff attorney at each school.

In the 2010-11 academic year, students logged 58,000 hours through MJF volunteer opportunities, providing service to more than 18,000 clients.

Thomas Hart, the MJF staff attorney at the University Law School, said typically about half of students across the four schools complete 50 hours of legal volunteer work.

Students who participate find it “very rewarding,” Hart said, and the legal aid agencies that partner with MJF often look to volunteers first when making hiring decisions.

The only Minnesota school to require legal volunteer work is Hamline University School of Law — a rule that was put in place last year.

Students are required to complete 24 hours of legal volunteer work, said Sara Schwebs, the MJF staff attorney at Hamline. Reactions have mostly been positive, with nearly half of students doubling the requirement last year, she said.

Attorneys at MJF constantly consider the pros and cons of requiring students to volunteer, Hart said. It’s important for law students to work with people who are different from them, he said.

Law students may come from privileged backgrounds, while people who seek assistance from legal aid organizations may come from generational poverty, he said.

Student volunteers help leverage resources at legal aid organizations that are underfunded and understaffed while also gaining real-life experience, Schwebs said.

But both are hesitant about the idea of implementing a statewide requirement.

“I’m unsure about requiring students to do something that we call volunteer work,” Hart said.


A statewide requirement

Students and scholars agree that pro bono work is important to the legal profession but disagree about the effectiveness of a statewide requirement.

Brad Clary, a clinical professor at the University Law School, said a statewide requirement is “a trickier issue than it first

When instituting a requirement, he said, there should be a wide variety of volunteer work that can qualify to meet it.

Another issue, Clary said, is that the requirement in New York is only for law students and not for practicing lawyers.

The American Bar Association, in its Model Rule 6.1, encourages lawyers to perform at least 50 hours of pro bono work each year.

In 1985, the Minnesota Supreme Court voted to adopt the rule.

Attempts in following years to make the rule a statewide requirement were denied on the basis that it “would not significantly advance or assist in the obligation of lawyers to provide pro bono services.”

Ethan Barnes, a third-year University law student, said he doesn’t think many law firms dedicate enough time to pro bono work.

“The law is supposed to exist to equalize things in our society and help people who are wronged in a certain way,” he said. “But the reality is you need a lot of money to really have access to the legal system.”

Barnes said requiring pro bono work in law school could have an effect on the way future lawyers think about it and even change the overall culture of law firms.

Instating the requirement at the University “would be a step in the right direction,” he said.

Polasky agreed, but said she was unsure of how students would respond.

“I think it’s doable, it’s a great idea,” she said. “But a lot of people don’t like being told what to do.”

Chomsky said if a requirement is put in place, students should understand why.

“We certainly want everyone to go into it with an attitude of understanding the importance of it and to be eager about participating in those activities.”

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