National Center for Access to Justice

ABA Takes Step Toward Adopting 50 Hour Aspirational Goal for Pro Bono Service by Law Students

The National Law Journal  reported today that this past weekend (March 16, 2014) the Council of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Bar Admission Requirements voted to adopt an “Interpretation” that, if ultimately approved by the ABA, would build into the Accreditation Standards for American law schools an aspirational goal for law students to perform at least 50 hours of pro bono service during their time as students.  

As approved by the Council, the Interpretation states:  “In meeting the requirement of Standard 303(b)(2) law schools are encouraged to promote opportunities for law students to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono service over their law school careers that complies with 303(b)(2).”  

The Interpretation is the first step taken by the ABA to quantify the obligation of law schools under the existing Accreditation Standards to provide students with “substantial opportunities” to perform law student pro bono service.

It is also the ABA’s first step to align itself with the articulated interest of state courts in ensuring that law students learn about the importance of pro bono service and perform a role that helps to narrow the justice gap.  New York has already adopted a 50 hour pro bono service bar admission requirement, and California, Montana, New Jersey and other states are poised to adopt similar rules.

The National Center for Access to Justice and Equal Justice Works had submitted comments in the ABA’s rulemaking process urging the Council to quantify the existing Standard by adopting a mandatory 50 hour requirement (NCAJ) or a voluntary one (Equal Justice Works).  See NCAJ’s earlier post here (with links to the comments).  The executive directors of NCAJ’s and Equal Justice Work had also testified in support of reform at a hearing hosted by the Council in Chicago on February 6, 2014. At the time of the hearing, Equal Justice Works had coordinated a campaign by 601 law students who had signed petitions in support of the 50 hour aspirational goal.

The National Law Journal quotes David Udell, Executive Director of NCAJ, explaining:  ‘[T]he council should be applauded for embracing the idea that pro bono service should be more clearly understood in law schools,” and “By defining ‘substantial opportunities,’ the council  begins to make the standard quantifiable rather than vague.”  The action follows several years of advocacy by NCAJ, Equal Justice Works, and others, to encourage the ABA to set a national minimal expectation for the performance of pro bono service by law students.

In addition to the Council’s action on pro bono, the Council took several significant additional actions, including by voting to incorporate new experiential learning requirements into the Accreditation Standards and to reject an initiative that would have modified tenure status for professors. More on these developments and others is available in the NLJ story here.

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