Pro Bono: Beneficial in Theory, Not in Fact
In theory, pro bono work is an indisputably positive activity. However, the specifics of a pro bono plan are not always so indisputable. This was made obvious by the recent proposal—and rejection—of a bill in California that would have required new lawyers to log a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono work before admittance to the bar.
According to Kali Hays in "Calif. Gov. Vetoes pro Bono Requirement for Bar Entry," Law360, August 31, 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill No. 1257 because it would financially burden new lawyers, who are already often in debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars and not necessarily readily able to find jobs after graduation from law school.
As an idea, pro bono is a concept that Brown approves of heartily. However, due to the financial implications, Brown feels that legislators should instead focus on lowering the costs of attending law school and taking the bar exam.
Following the California veto, New York remains the only state to have a mandatory pro bono rule: new law school graduates must do 50 hours of pro bono work before they will be admitted to the state bar.
The pro bono sentiment is certainly appropriate—that is, helping people in need. However, the implementation leaves something to be desired. Mandatory pro bono work makes legal education and licensing more expensive than it already is, and Governor Brown was correct to point that out.
The idea of free legal work for the indigent would be more acceptable, too, if the same requirement were asserted for all lawyers, even the ones earning several hundred thousands of dollars. But requiring only newbies, who are often in debt and have little experience, seems quite arbitrary. Of course, if anyone suggested that all lawyers should log pro bono hours, the concept would be shot down as a "not in my backyard" idea.
A mandatory pro bono rule is, in fact, merely another way to stratify the profession and fail to help people in need.