Better Lawyering for the Poor

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The New York Times Editorial Board published a piece spotlighting various New York-based initiatives that might transform the structure of the legal industry, and thus open more access to legal resources.

These highlighted projects include

New York State’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, is making some innovative changes to the education and training of lawyers as well as to the workings of the court system that bear close watching around the country.

Here is the full, short editorial:

Starting next year, a new program will let third-year law students take the bar exam in February instead of July, in exchange for spending their last semester doing free legal work for the poor under the supervision of seasoned attorneys. The plan enlarges on existing law school internships and previous steps by Judge Lippman to increase the involvement of law schools and students in helping the indigent. Giving third-year students full-time practical training, along with earlier admission to the bar, could help improve their job prospects.

Judge Lippman is also seeking to have more non-lawyers assist unrepresented litigants in housing, consumer debt and other cases. A pilot project in Brooklyn and the Bronx will allow trained non-lawyers called “court navigators” to accompany unrepresented litigants to court and respond to questions from a judge, though not address the court on their own. The legal profession has no reason to feel threatened by this since the navigators will be helping people who cannot afford a lawyer and have no alternative form of representation.

On another front, Judge Lippman is trying to reduce the harmful consequences of old misdemeanor convictions, which can prevent people from finding work and housing or obtaining professional licenses and government benefits.

Starting in April, at his order, the court system will no longer include misdemeanors on the records of people it sells to background screening agencies, if the individuals involved have no other criminal convictions and have not been arrested for 10 years. (There will be exceptions for sex offenses, public corruption and drunken driving.) The judge also plans to submit legislation in Albany that would spare individuals with a clean record for seven years from having to reveal old misdemeanors when applying for a job (with the same exceptions), and give judges authority to seal nonviolent felony convictions after 10 years.

These are all sensible reforms that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature should get behind.


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