Thursday, August 27, 2015
In 2014, New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge, Jonathan Lippman, announced a new program called the Pro Bono Scholars Program[i] (“PBSP”). The PBSP allows students in their last semester of law school in New York to work in a full time pro bono placement in lieu of attending classes.
Student participating in the PBSP follow a modified calendar for their final semester of law school. Participants prepare for the New York bar exam in January and early February and take the exam in late February, instead of taking the July bar exam with the rest of their classmates. After the bar exam, participants spend the entire final spring semester, between 450-500 hours, in a law school experiential learning program in which they provide pro bono legal assistance and participate in closely-related classes at their law schools.
Once the program ends, if the participants have passed the bar exam, they receive expedited review of their applications to the bar. Then, if they have successfully completed the PBSP and all other graduation requirements, those students then become eligible for admission to practice in New York in June or shortly thereafter.
When the program launched in the Spring semester of 2015, all New York law schools participated. Some schools placed students in pro bono divisions of law firms, while other schools placed students in public interest organizations. Yet, other schools used the program to expand their clinical offerings.
At Columbia Law School, we took four students who mediated federal agency employment discrimination cases through the New York District Office of the EEOC. We structured the program such that students mediated cases Monday through Thursday in our clinical facilities on campus and spent Friday at the EEOC office with the judges.
This structure allowed the students to shepherd cases from the beginning through the end. While at the EEOC the students were able to access cases soon after they were filed and assigned to a judge. The students would then screen the cases to ensure they met the income requirement for the PBSP. Then, the students consulted the EEOC judges to further screen for other signs that the cases would be good for resolution through mediation.
Once cases were assigned for mediation, the students worked with our mediation clinical faculty to make contact with the parties and develop the cases until the mediation session or sessions occurred. The students, along with a mediation faculty member, then mediated the cases and performed any necessary follow-up with the parties and judges.
The PBSP in general is something I hope other states emulate. It provides students with the chance to immerse themselves in the practice of law, making them more viable candidates in the job market. And for those with jobs already secured, it gives them a head start on their legal training—lack of which has become a common complaint in hiring. Additionally, because participants get expedited admission to the New York bar, they also enter the market without bar passage as a lingering question for employers.
The benefits of the program are not entirely the students’. The program also provides hundreds of hours of legal service to members of society who might otherwise be under- or unserved. It also provides agencies or non-profits with an opportunity to alleviate the strain on their own resources in serving the public.
Of course, this model is not without controversy. Some have argued that increasing access to justice should not mean that those who most need assistance are getting the least experienced help available.
That argument is partially why Columbia chose to keep the program in house through our mediation clinic. With our clinical professors spending forty hours training the students and then providing close supervision through each mediation, the students were able to mediate a significant number of cases, while simultaneously getting to see seasoned mediators mediate along side them. This also meant that mediation parties were reaping the benefit of having their case heard by experienced professionals in addition to student mediators.
This model is one that states may consider adopting. But, in the meantime, individual law schools ought to consider tailoring some sort of program like the PBSP to their particular needs because there are benefits for both the school and the students. There are no faculty members better situated than clinical faculty to spearhead such an initiative because they may already have clinical programs in place that are a perfect fit which would allow even more students access to clinical education.