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Task force hears call for strong measures for legal services

By Rex Bossert
Staff Writer

Addressing the severe shortage of legal services for the poor requires strong measures such as pro bono requirements for lawyers and new kinds of legal service providers, according to New York and Washington state officials.

Judge Jonathan Lippman
Judge Jonathan Lippman – Photo courtesy of New York State Office of Court Administration

Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the State of New York, told a State Bar task force on May 28 that his state’s judiciary has taken the lead in establishing innovative ways to increase legal aid for poor and low-income people who can’t afford a lawyer.

“Legal services for the poor is not tangential to what we do, it is what we do,” Lippman said to the Civil Justice Strategies Task Force.

Speaking by webcast, Lippman described several programs created in New York to help poor and working-class families. These include implementing a 50-hour pro bono requirement for members of the New York bar, increasing state funding for legal service providers, allowing law students to take the bar exam early and authorizing a new category of legal “navigators” to help low-income people with housing, consumer credit and other issues.

New York and California are among the first states to require lawyers to perform pro bono work, Lippman said. He said law students and young lawyers especially have embraced the 50-hour requirement because they are entering the profession to help others. He added that if New York and California provide the example, “the rest of the country will follow.”

Lippman also said that over the past few years, the New York Legislature has increased the judiciary’s budget for grants to legal service providers from $27.5 million to $70 million. Economics experts have shown that for every dollar spent for legal services for the poor in New York, $6 has been returned to the state’s economy, he said.

“It’s good for the bottom line of our state for its financial well-being and heath,” Lippman said.

Starting next year, Lippman said, third-year law students will be able to take the New York bar exam in February and spend the rest of the year providing legal services in clinical programs supervised by law schools.

Drawing much attention from task force members was New York’s unique legal navigators program, which allows specially trained counselors to accompany unrepresented clients to court for advice and moral support on simple matters such as consumer credit disputes.

Lippman said the program is “going very well” after the judiciary established administrative rules and training for both the navigators and the judges in whose courts they appear. He also addressed possible objections by lawyers to the potential for increased competition from non-lawyers.

“We’re not taking bread out of anyone’s mouths,” Lippman said.

While New York court officials pursued a strategy of establishing the navigator practice first, then developing the regulatory framework that will soon govern it, Washington state officials first spent years crafting rules for legal service technicians and are now implementing a two-year training program.

Stephen Crossland, a solo practitioner and former Washington state bar president, described to the task force the creation of the state’s Limited License Legal Technician program, which will issue its first licenses next year.

Authorized by the Washington Supreme Court, the legal technicians will receive training at three state law schools and 29 community colleges to provide counseling for people with family law issues who cannot afford a lawyer.

Unlike their New York counterparts, Washington’s legal technicians will help clients prepare their paperwork and cases, but will not go to court. Crossland said officials eventually hope to broaden the program to focus on landlord-tenant, elder and immigration law.

Eighteen months ago, Crossland said, a 13-member board reporting to the Supreme Court was established to create an exam and oversee licensing, discipline and continuing education of legal technicians.

“It’s a whole new bar association,” said Crossland, who serves as the board’s chief.

Also speaking to the task force was Veyom Bahl of the anti-poverty organization Robin Hood, who described his group’s funding of the new Immigrant Justice Corps. Modeled after the Peace Corps, the Immigrant Justice Corps will provide fellowships for recent college and law school graduates to work with nonprofit groups to help low-income people with immigration issues.

Margaret Hagen, a student fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, told the task force about new online strategies to provide low-cost legal services with input from the consumers themselves.

Colin Rule, founder and Chief Operating Officer of Modria, a new online dispute resolution firm, described to the task force how his company’s Internet-based technology grew out of efforts to handle millions of low-value consumer disputes for eBay and PayPal.

The next meeting of the task force is scheduled for June 18 in Los Angeles and will focus on the high cost of legal education. For more information, see the task force web page.

The State Bar’s Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform Phase II, charged with implementing new training requirements for lawyers that would include 50 hours of pro bono, meets June 11 in San Francisco.