Statement in Support of Amending the Practice Order for Law Graduates Working for Legal Services Organizations and Government

The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (UAW Local 2325) and The Legal Services Staff Association (UAW Local 2320) represent 2,000 attorneys and legal workers at more than a dozen organizations in New York. Our dedicated members fight tirelessly for hundreds of thousands of low-income community members and their families in immigration cases, criminal proceedings, housing court, child welfare proceedings, employment cases, and many other areas. Recent law school graduates are an integral part of our fight to provide essential legal services and zealous representation to the most marginalized New Yorkers.

Over the past several months they’ve built strong relationships with their clients, which is more important during this pandemic than ever before. They have become indispensable to the many families they serve, and due to the postponement of the July bar exam we urge Governor Cuomo and Chief Judge DiFiore to temporarily enable persons who are currently employed as law graduates with government or legal services entities to continue to practice under supervision after a second bar exam failure. Judiciary Law § 478 permits law graduates working for indigent legal services providers or the government to practice law under the supervision of those entities so long as they have not failed to pass the bar exam twice. As a result of this restriction, law graduates who have represented clients for months but who failed to pass the July 2019 and February 2020 bar exams will no longer be able to practice in their current roles. This rule has a particularly dire impact on law graduates and their clients this year. As the July 2020 bar exam was postponed to September 9th and first time test takers get priority to register, there is no certainty for when these currently-practicing law graduates will be able to take the bar exam again. Some law graduates will be demoted to non-legal positions within their organization, and others will be terminated. Not only is it a waste of talent and expertise, as these law graduates have been satisfactorily serving their clients for months, it will result in aspiring public interest attorneys with mountains of debt losing income and employer based healthcare during a pandemic. Many will also lose access to their law school’s public interest loan repayment assistance program (LRAP). [1]

We are urging the Governor and Chief Judge to suspend the clauses of Judiciary Law §478(2) and §478(3), that disqualify law graduates from practicing under supervision if they have failed to pass the bar exam twice. Notably, on April 28, 2020, the Court of Appeals expanded the law graduate practice order to temporarily enable those who have not sat for the bar to practice under the supervision of experienced attorneys. Similarly, expanding the practice order to accommodate public interest law graduates who have failed the bar twice will enable their clients to have continuity of representation. These law graduates would continue to be supervised by qualified government and legal service organization attorneys. In February 2020, the overall bar exam pass rate was low, and 1,443 people retook the test. We have numerous members serving hundreds of clients who would benefit from this rule change, and there are undoubtedly many other aspiring public interest attorneys throughout the state who would benefit as well. Updating the practice order will allow these young advocates to continue protecting their clients during the current pandemic. Ultimately, this is an access to justice issue.

[1]In February 2019, 65% of Association of Legal Aid Attorneys carried law school debt, and a majority of attorneys and law graduates with less than four years of experience (56%) have more than $150,000 of student debt. 25% of our members attended law schools that have Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAP), which forgive student loans for law graduates and attorneys who work for public interest organizations or the government. If law graduates no longer qualify under the student practice order, it is difficult for them to qualify for LRAP.