Top State Judges To Tackle Public Interest 'Lawyer Deserts'

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A new committee composed of state Supreme Court chief justices and others will examine why fewer attorneys are going into public interest law, as well as the state of legal education and bar admissions processes more generally, according to an announcement Monday.

The Committee on Legal Education and Admissions Reform, formed by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, is charged with exploring why there has been a decline in lawyers choosing to focus their careers on public interest and public sector practice, according to an announcement from the National Center for State Courts.

The 18-month CLEAR committee will also recommend changes to improve legal education and diversify bar admissions processes so that new law school graduates are better prepared to begin practicing, according to the NCSC. Nine state Supreme Court chief justices will sit on the 12-member committee, which will also include three state court administrators, according to the announcement.

"Our profession faces really profound, even existential challenges, and it's something that in our court system we are feeling very immediately and want to take on urgently," New Hampshire Chief Justice Gordon J. MacDonald, who will chair the new panel, told Law360 on Monday.

Those challenges include the inability of public interest organizations, like public defenders and prosecutors offices as well as legal services entities, to recruit and retain attorneys.

There is also a general sense in the legal industry that attorneys coming out of law school are not ready to represent clients, according to Justice MacDonald.

"If a lawyer is not practice-ready, their ability to take on clients, particularly in a solo or small-firm setting, is not where it should be," the chief justice said. "Lawyers who go into big firms can benefit from big firms' training programs. But where we need the help is in these vast lawyer deserts where there are simply no lawyers serving the public in great need."

As an example, more than 90% of litigants in New Hampshire circuit courts, especially subject-matter courts, have no lawyer, Justice MacDonald pointed out.

"And they're unable to retain a lawyer because there are just none available in that geography," he added.

The committee will focus its attention on whether students coming out of law school are ready to begin practicing law, how to assess students' minimum competence in the law, and if there are other approaches to giving new lawyers that competence, the NCSC said in the announcement. The committee will also explore what's behind the decline in public service lawyering, according to the NCSC.

"Since I became chief justice in March of 2021, these issues have been discussed repeatedly among chief justices, and there's a real desire to take them on because we are all sensing the urgency to do something about them," Justice MacDonald said.

The committee's first formal meeting is slated for late January. But it has already broken into three working groups — one dealing with bar admissions, one dealing with practice readiness and one dealing with promoting public interest law, according to Justice MacDonald. Each working group is chaired by a chief justice and will be aided in its work by external stakeholders and experts.

The committee hopes to issue a final report by June 2025, he said.

"They're big issues, and a short timeline, but it all underscores the urgency and immediacy that we're feeling around these issues," Justice MacDonald said.

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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