Thank you, Chief Judge Lippman and the members of the hearing panel, for conducting these hearings on the importance of – and urgent need for – civil legal services in our Fourth Department community and around the state. I note that this is the fourth year the chief judge is presiding over hearings on access to civil legal services and that it is the second time that I am here to offer the perspective of a law school dean. Let me thank you, Chief Judge Lippman, for asking me to appear again before this panel, and for gracing our school again so soon after your inspiring keynote address at our Commencement in May. The words of wisdom that you left with us are still with us today.
Equal access to justice underpins our democracy. It is the key to equality before the law, without which there can be no democracy. An important component of that is devotion to serving the public as lawyers. An iconic American, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I am continually impressed by the commitment of the SUNY Buffalo Law students, faculty and staff to serve our community by working with needy clients to help victims of domestic violence, secure health care and other basic benefits for the elderly, ensure that low-income families have access to affordable housing, provide mediation services to those who could not afford them, counsel unrepresented debtors regarding their rights as consumers and help them through the legal process, and act on behalf of non-profit environmental groups to protect environmental and ecological resources. These are just a few of the things we have been able to do at SUNY Buffalo Law School to increase access to justice in the Fourth Department. Together with Chief Judge Lippman’s efforts to establish consistent and reliable funding for civil legal services and the work of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York to offer innovative, alternative resources to deliver civil legal services, this state’s law schools and students are continuing to expand the work they have done for decades in partnership with the legal community, striving to bridge what you correctly call the justice gap.
I believe that to ensure equal access to justice for all, law schools like SUNY Buffalo Law School must educate future members of the legal profession that they have an obligation to engage in lifelong legal pro bono service. I want to commend the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York for convening this May the second conference in two years focused on candid conversations among law school deans, administrators, professors, community partners and law students to proactively think about ways in which we can best educate students and instill in them a core value of the legal profession – pro bono service to the community. The long-term success of that work will depend on focused efforts not only within law schools like mine, but on partnerships with our colleagues, legal services providers, pro bono coordinators at law firms, members of the bar, bar examiners, bar association leaders and judges.
At this year’s conference, topical work groups looked at a number of issues, including:
The conference report will share the exciting results as part of the task force’s annual report on these hearings, and help highlight the continuing, pressing need for increased access to civil legal services. Chief Judge Lippman, you will receive recommendations on these models, best practices and proposals for new or revised rules and policies that will facilitate efforts to close the justice gap flowing from the work of the conference participants and follow-up efforts.
Meeting for the first time at this year’s conference was also the Statewide Law School Access to Justice Council. The Council is composed of representatives appointed by the deans from each of state’s 15 law schools. The Council will work to enhance communication and collaboration among law schools, legal services providers and the bar to maximize our efforts and resources to deliver legal services to those in need. Among other issues, the Council is studying the feasibility of an online clearinghouse that would serve as a central location for law schools, providers and bar associations to post pro bono opportunities for students to improve efficiencies and collaborations for all of us and better serve those in need of legal services. It is anticipated that technological innovations can reach individuals who otherwise would not have access to law school-sponsored assistance programs, legal services providers or a courthouse to obtain critically needed civil legal assistance.
The deleterious consequences resulting from the contraction of our economy continue to impact our most vulnerable citizens. In metropolitan centers, individuals seeking legal assistance often have a number of legal services providers, bar association programs, and clinics and service programs at local law schools to approach. But in rural communities far away from the cities, there are fewer options. It is likewise vital to remind ourselves that the existence of local service providers is not a guarantee that legal assistance will be available. In far too many cases, those in need are turned away because there are simply not enough hours in a week or in a day for the dedicated professionals, students and volunteers who provide free legal assistance.
The newly enacted requirement for law students to perform 50 hours of supervised pro bono service as a prerequisite to bar admission is certain to both help with the justice gap, and imbue young lawyers with this important civic responsibility they implicitly undertake upon admission to the bar. The fact that nearly 40 percent of lawyers who are members of the New York State Bar Association report that they are solo practitioners or are members of a firm with 10 lawyers or less underscores the critical role of pro bono service in training our students. Individuals who engage in a solo practice or practice in a small firm often are the community’s first responders for people facing acute difficulties. Likewise, our law schools are responding by expanding our clinical and experiential learning opportunities and programs to both provide some direct service to otherwise unserved or underserved clients, and give students the skills and training they need to provide effective legal representation to those in need.
SUNY Buffalo Law School gives our students experiential learning programs through clinics, externships and practica that combine the study of law with supervised practical work where students deliver services to people facing legal challenges that could have life-altering consequences. Our service learning opportunities assist people of all ages, from children to the elderly, who are in need of legal counsel and cannot afford to retain an attorney. Our clinics and practica are staffed by faculty members who train our young lawyers to handle the panoply of issues to preserve or regain their rights in matters relating to family relations, health care, financial issues, criminal matters, environmental injustices and affordable housing, among others. In addition, we have clinics that focus on environmental and economic policies and issues that directly affect daily life in our communities. We also have clinics that are run by and staffed by our students and faculty where our students are trained by local legal service providers in our community, including the Western New York Law Center, Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled or Disadvantaged of Western New York, the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, Legal Aid and Neighborhood Legal Services. These groups and organizations work with clients under attorney supervision. Together, this work on behalf of our law faculty and students fulfills a fundamental goal of our profession – to serve the public. While we have had a strong history of public service among the majority our students, the new pro bono bar admission requirement ensures that each and every student will be inculcated with the ethic of public service at the outset of their professional lives, and I believe personally that this initiative is one of the most important initiatives in our state which surely will further bridge the justice gap.
The decisions issued by the United States Supreme Court at the conclusion of its 2012-13 term in my view reinforce the importance of instilling our law students a social conscience. Many of the court’s recent rulings implicate civil legal rights that will have real-life consequences for our citizens. Alexander Hamilton once told us, “The first duty of society is justice.” As the dean of this law school, I will continue our work to ensure that our most vulnerable neighbors have access to justice. I believe that every lawyer must live and work at the intersection of power and powerlessness and in that exercise practice law with a social conscience. I applaud you and I applaud the work of the legislature in providing more funding for these activities. Thank you.