NEW YORK – New York State Assembly Member Aravella Simotas and NYS Senator Brad Holyman introduced legislation to create an exemption during the COVID-19 pandemic for law graduates representing indigent clients, and who have not yet passed the bar exam, to continue the practice of law. The exemption would also apply to graduates working for state or local governments.
Currently, law graduates can represent certain clients under the supervision of a licensed attorney only if they have failed the bar exam less than two times. However, limited testing accommodations due to the COVID-19 crisis have left repeat test-takers uncertain as to when they will be able to register for a seat for the next bar exam. The issue was first highlighted in an article by Law 360.
“New York needs to be mindful about who will be immediately affected by limiting the pool of experienced professionals who can assist indigent clients during the COVID-19 pandemic — seniors, tenants being evicted from their homes and immigrants,” said Assembly Member Simotas. “We have an obligation to mitigate the risks to New Yorkers during this health crisis, and ensuring that the indigent have informed legal representation is an important way in meeting our duty,” she said.
Senator Hoylman said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for legal services for struggling New Yorkers, and we need all hands on deck to address this crisis. Given the extraordinary circumstances COVID-19 has imposed on the legal profession, law school graduates who are currently representing immigrants, low-income tenants and seniors for legal aid organizations should be able to continue their hard work on behalf of these New Yorkers. I’m proud to be working with Assembly Member Simotas on this legislation which will temporarily allow more pre-admission law school graduates to provide legal assistance under the supervision of a legal aid organization.”
The pandemic has limited seating for the September New York bar exam by prioritizing law graduates who are first-time test takers, leaving bar exam re-takers out in the cold. Now, law graduates who have not yet passed the bar exam fear salary cuts, unemployment, and removal from cases. More importantly, indigent clients will bear the heavy consequences of this limitation as new attorneys assigned to their cases will need to familiarize themselves with matters and start with a limited understanding of the facts that is only improved with experience. Our current climate suggests that there will be a significant increase in the number of indigent clients who will need lawyers to consider their cases.
Temporarily suspending the two-fail qualification so that law graduates who represent indigent clients may continue to do so under the supervision of a licensed attorney is a simple, common sense measure that will have a profound impact on indigent clients that rely on not-for-profit organizations to defend their rights. This bill will also protect government workers who are diligently serving the public during this crisis from losing their jobs because they are unable to sit for the bar exam. Under these extraordinary circumstances, New York must ensure that all residents have informed legal representation to advocate for their rights.