Before a law student can become a lawyer in California, he or she must make it through the toughest bar exam in the nation.

A new bill written by Sen. Marty Block would require would-be lawyers to do something else too before they can be admitted to the State Bar: complete 50 hours of pro bono legal work.

It’s an idea New York has already implemented, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said all states should be doing.

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Block’s bill passed the Assembly this week and is headed back to the state Senate for a final sign-off.

By expanding the pool of people providing free legal help, the bill would broaden access to the justice system for those with the fewest resources.

But what about the aspiring lawyers who’ll be forced to do the work? It’s good for them too, according to people I talked with at law schools across the state – all of whom endorsed the measure.

“I strongly favor the 50 hours of pro bono work requirement,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, told me in an email. “I believe all lawyers have a duty to do pro bono work and that this obligation begins in law school.”

“Given that lawyers do have this special knowledge, it’s a monopoly on that, and I think we really do have an obligation as a community to reach out and use that knowledge pool to help people who can’t afford legal services,” said Judybeth Tropp, a professor and director of externships and pro bono programs at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. “It’s absolutely fair to put this on law students.”

“I know that not every lawyer provides pro bono assistance over the course of his or her career,” said Charles Weisselberg, a professor and former associate dean at UC Berkeley School of Law. “But inculcating that value early is important and will, I believe, assist these fledgling lawyers over the course of their careers.”

Some schools, like Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, already require pro bono hours as a requirement for graduation.

Cindy Archer, associate dean for clinical and experiential programs at Loyola, said they’ve seen the benefits firsthand: “For many students, it may be the first opportunity to work on a real client problem. Further, amidst the tension of exams and employment concerns, our students love the fact it reminds them why they decided to attend law school. As a practical matter, it also helps them to begin developing their professional network.”

And though students can often be financially strapped themselves during law school, there’s an important caveat in the bill meant to ensure they don’t go broke themselves while performing pro bono work. It says that work can count as pro bono so long as the clients themselves aren’t providing payment. That means that a law firm or agency employing the students can pay them.

“A lot of students go to law school and have some idea of what area of practice they want to get in …. but they really don’t have practical exposure to a large variety of areas of legal practice,” said Block, who went to law school at DePaul University in Chicago and worked as an attorney before running for office. “This will give them added exposure in an area that’s relatively high-need but can be low-paying. They may actually decide after they do it that it’s something that’s rewarding.”

Though everyone I spoke with embraced the bill, there are of course others who believe the government shouldn’t compel good deeds.

“Engaging in pro bono work can be very rewarding. The smile I see the smile on a client’s face after I have helped them is priceless. That smile means so much less when the government compels the work,” Ronald Rotunda, a professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, wrote last month.

“It is an obligation, just like law school is an obligation. There are a whole series of obligations when it comes to becoming a lawyer,” said Block. “For some, they may not be thrilled with the obligation just as many aren’t thrilled being forced to take real estate law. For those who are fortunate enough to be in law school, this is one more obligation, and I think it’s an important one.”

Back at it Again

The state Legislature reconvened this week. Here’s a sampling of what’s happening as lawmakers get back in action.

There’s already talk of extending the fun into a lame-duck session in November. (Cap Radio)

It’s going to be a busy month, the Sac Bee points out: “lawmakers are expected to address issues including affordable housingridesharing regulations, overtime for farm workers, body camera regulations, and cap and trade.”

Another Win for the Undocumented

A bill by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez that would ensure someone injured in California gets compensated fairly regardless of immigration status passed the Legislature and is headed to the governor’s desk.

California has passed an extraordinary number of bills in the last couple years aimed at bolstering the rights of those living here illegally.

Golden State News

The state’s public employee pension system is caught in a vicious cycle. (Sac Bee)

California, disturbed by a series of oil train explosions (which our old pal Rob Davis has covered extensively), wants to ramp up the state’s ability to respond to a potential explosion. (Sac Bee)

A terminally ill man talks about the comfort that’s come from being able to obtain life-ending medication through California’s new aid-in-dying law. (L.A. Times)

The San Diego Chamber of Commerce announced it’s endorsing Assemblywoman Toni Atkins in her bid for the state Senate. (Times of San Diego)

Old meets new: California’s state archives are on Facebook. (Fresno Bee)

In a great statewide troll of Donald Trump, the California Assembly voted this week to make August 2016 Muslim Appreciation and Awareness Month. (NBC News)

Former California governor candidate Meg Whitman, a prominent Republican, announced she’s supporting and donating to Hillary Clinton. (New York Times)

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Loyola Law School requires 50 hours of pro bono service. It requires 40 hours. 

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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