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Pro bono requirement would unduly burden recent law graduates [Letter]

Claudia Diamond must have been one of the fortunate few law school graduates who had the benefit of a significant scholarship or finished her education with no significant debt to repay ("Bar exam does not a lawyer make," Nov. 7). And if she ever provided pro bone services I would bet it was out of a personal desire to do so at a time which she decided was best in her career, rather than an action compelled by others.

Most of the attorneys I know, including myself and my sister, graduated law school with student loans that took years to repay. Many graduates have no immediate job on the horizon at graduation. In this economy, from resumes I've seen in my position as an attorney supervisor, it seems there is tremendous competition among experienced attorneys, even for entry level jobs, and recent graduates who are admitted to the bar have quite a struggle just finding employment.

As Ms. Diamond notes, many law schools to have externship and clinical programs that serve actual clients. At the University of Baltimore Law School (where Ms. Diamond serves as director of academic support) students have access to a well known and well respected clinic program that allows them to gain valuable experience "providing direct legal services" under the supervision of licensed attorneys. Perhaps the best answer to the issue is to expand these programs and to make participation in one or more of them a prerequisite for graduation for all students — while the student is still enrolled and before student loans become due.

Simply because one state (New York) recently implemented a 50 hour pro bono prerequisite for bar admission — which goes into effect in 2015 — is insufficient reason to urge Maryland to "join up" with a similar experiment. There is no proof the New York prerequisite will result in any better qualified attorneys or provide competent legal assistance to those who traditionally seek pro bono legal services. Typically these people can't afford the rates of an experienced licensed attorney or experienced legal staff at a law firm. In fact, requiring pro bono service as a prerequisite to admission to the Maryland bar would effectively take much of the pro bono burden off experienced attorneys earning the highest income and would deprive those most in need of the services of experienced attorneys and their staff.

As the director of academic support at one of the state's finest law schools, Ms. Diamond could forward her cause in educating law students by calling upon Maryland law schools to require clinical practice experience. She could also call for the highest earning attorneys to contribute a higher percentage of pro bono hours (and yes, I can feel the outrage this idea will generate).

Yet it's not unheard of to expect more from those who have "made it" big. In 2007, Bill Gates gave Harvard's graduating class this reminder: "From those to whom much is given, much is expected." Law school graduates who have not yet been admitted to the bar are not in this class yet. They may, one day, be able to provide pro bono legal services happily and without angst at their situation, but to put this burden on them at the time they are most in need of the license required to get a job is simply unfair. It's especially harsh when there is no such requirement of licensed attorneys. Wouldn't the public be better served with more experienced pro bono help?

From personal experience I can confirm there are few things better or more personally rewarding than to donate your time and services to those in need and to make a positive difference in the lives of those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable. However, I would not have seen the benefit of pro bono work if it were imposed as a licensing requirement, rather than motivated by a desire to give assistance to others at a time when I was also earning a paycheck as an attorney. Most people who are forced to donate anything don't do so with a giving spirit or a true desire to help others. Those kind of forced donations of time or money are perceived as a fines, fees or forced labor. That's not exactly the type of pro bono experience that will lead to better lawyers or well served clients.

Suzanne T. Berger, Towson

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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