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Bar exam does not a lawyer make

Last week, more than 1,500 people — most of them recent law school graduates — found out whether they passed the Maryland Bar Examination, a grueling, two-day test designed to assess the taker's readiness to enter the marketplace and become your lawyer.

Despite a decrease in law school applications nationwide and increasing concerns that the United States has too many lawyers, most test takers — about 80 percent — passed the Maryland bar exam given in July. Barring any issues that cast doubt on their "character and fitness" to be a lawyer, these successful test takers will be sworn in before the Court of Appeals of Maryland in January.

But are they really ready to be lawyers?

Unlike medical school graduates, who must gain practical experience before being licensed, Maryland — like most states — does not have a similar requirement for newly minted lawyers. It's true that the marketplace is demanding law students be "practice ready" upon graduation, and law schools are moving to incorporate more hands-on learning via student participation in externship programs and clinical programs that serve actual clients. But despite this increase in curricular offerings, many law students will graduate — and pass the bar — with very little, if any, experience providing direct legal services.

It's time for a change — a change that will benefit not just new lawyers but our society as well.

Let's require prospective admittees to the bar to provide pro bono services — work done for the public good without compensation — to the poor and to institutions helping the least powerful among us.

Such a requirement would not be difficult to implement. Recognizing the ever-increasing need for legal services among the poor, and recognizing that helping the poor is a value intrinsic to the profession, New York last year became the first state to require aspiring lawyers to complete pro bono work as a condition of their admission to the state bar.

The rule, which goes into effect for those seeking admission in 2015, requires applicants to complete 50 hours of pro bono work at any time after they begin their legal studies and before they file an application for admission to the New York State bar. They may help people who need legal services, work on increasing access to justice or assist nonprofits and other entities. Once the 50 hours are completed, the aspiring New York lawyer files an affidavit of compliance describing the nature of the services provided and the number of hours completed. And then they have to pass the New York bar exam.

A mandatory pro bono requirement should be instituted as a condition for admission to the bar in Maryland for three important reasons:

•First, while mandatory pro bono work is not a cure-all for social problems, it could help address the access-to-justice gap that exists in Maryland. In 2011, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, examining U.S. Census data, estimated that there was one lawyer for 165 Maryland citizens, but that there was only one full-time public interest lawyer for 1,931 low-income Marylanders. And while many lawyers do provide pro bono services, the commission estimates that only 22 percent of the civil needs of low-income individuals are being met today.

Second, pro bono work provides practical training for law students, which is now almost universally considered a "best practice" for law students. While 50 hours of experience is not a lot, it at least guarantees a minimal level of exposure to the "real" practice of law. In addition, Maryland could follow New York's lead and require that students be supervised by a practicing attorney or judge.

Third, requiring students to get involved early in providing pro bono services — even before they actually embark on a legal career — may encourage them to remain involved while practicing. Historically, law students have been involved in providing legal assistance to the needy, but there is no question that we need more law students and lawyers doing this type of work.

I recognize that not everyone will jump on the public-interest bandwagon and begin a life of good works if exposed to pro bono work as a student. But a pro bono requirement would reinforce a core value of the profession: that becoming a lawyer is a privilege that requires you to give of your time and talents to those less fortunate. It is not about just passing the bar exam.

Claudia Diamond is the director of academic support at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a former prosecutor with the Attorney General's Office of Maryland. Her email is cdiamond@ubalt.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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