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NY Top Judge Tells Students: We’ve All Got Problems

Everyone likes solving more than one problem at once. New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has an even better idea: Kill one bird with one stone and then celebrate killing two.

Lippman has a message for law students in New York State. That message, in actions rather than words, is that we all have our own problems. If you are a law student, your problem is that you are likely to graduate with staggering debt and limited job prospects, especially if you are not a highly ranked student at a top-tier school who is pursued by elite law firms.

Lippman’s problem is separate: a “justice gap” affecting lower income New Yorkers. On the criminal side, the existence of this gap is hard to argue, as thousands of New Yorkers languish in jails, unable to make bail during extended pretrial periods where prosecutors first overcharge them and then demand that they cop a plea. But Lippman feels that New Yorkers are also underrepresented in civil cases like landlord-tenant disputes - a matter that is more open to debate, given the state’s tenant-friendly housing laws and aggressive regulatory apparatus.

The legal profession at large also has a problem, related to the other two. Prospective law students are avoiding the field in droves, as the dive in law school applicant numbers for recent years illustrates. One answer would be to shorten the required length of most law degree programs and let students start their careers after two years of education rather than the standard three. This idea has drawn wide support, even from former law lecturer Barack Obama. It has notably not drawn support, however, from the American Bar Association or from most of the law school community, which sees no reason to let its customers escape after 24 months instead of 36. New York Law School is one of the few notable exceptions, letting students earn a degree after only two years of courses (and, at least for now, two years of tuition). At most schools, though, three years is still the requirement.

So what is Lippman’s answer to this crisis of legal education and students’ struggle to secure work in their field? He recently unveiled an initiative that he framed as such an answer. In his State of the Judiciary 2014, Lippman declared, “But rather than discarding the third year of law school, why not give law students choices that can make all three years of law school more meaningful and worthwhile?”

He doesn’t specify, but it seems clear that he means it would make the education more meaningful and worthwhile to Lippman, who has a state-paid job and no further tuition bills to handle. He does not talk about making legal education more practical or affordable. That’s not his problem.

Instead, he proposes to let law students to opt in to a program allowing them to sit for the bar exam in February of their third year, instead of the following July. In exchange, they would spend their final semester of law school providing pro bono legal services for New York’s disadvantaged citizens. While the proposed Pro Bono Scholars Program would not become a requirement, Lippman told reporters, “I think our problem is going to be, in some regard, that the kids will be banging down our door because they all want to get out early into the market.”

Those looking to practice law in New York state must currently complete 50 mandatory hours of pro bono work. (This was another Lippman initiative, adopted in 2012 and effective as of 2015.) Lippman’s idea seems to be that if a little pro bono work is good, a lot is better.

While we can see how Lippman’s initiative would address the justice gap, it is less clear how it will help law students, despite the claims that “he’s simultaneously tackling two major problems with this initiative,” as Matthew Diller of Cardozo Law School told The New York Times. In reality, there does not seem to be very much simultaneous about it. It is unclear that taking the bar exam earlier will, by itself, yield tangible rewards for students. There is no hint that it will reduce the cost of going to law school, and whether it will really help them get well-paid jobs after their pro bono stint (are jobs with salaries anti bono?) remains to be seen. But that seems to be a detail that Lippman would rather gloss over than address.

The fact that law school deans have cautiously supported the measure and that “law schools will create a strong academic component to complement their practical experience, in the form of seminars or tutorials” during the final semester, makes it highly doubtful that tuition will be waived. And shouldering 500 hours of work, plus seminars or tutorials and bar exam review programs (at least until February), is unlikely to leave students with more time for networking or job hunting than their classmates who take another five months to prepare for the bar exam instead.

But Lippman is enthusiastic. After all, of the two problems he claims to be addressing, the one that concerns him most is the one that his solution would really target. If it fails to address the other, well, that’s also someone else’s problem.

Law school students and prospective students, take note: From the very height of the legal profession, your concerns are of relatively little consequence. Burdened by too much debt? Just give away 500 hours of your time, rather than 50. Your reward will be permission to take the bar exam 5 months early, without necessarily saving a nickel in tuition or enhancing your marketability one iota when it comes time to pay your law school debts.

Claiming to fix a problem is not the same as actually fixing it. Students should pay attention to the actions, rather than the words, of those who claim to help.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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