Chapter Two: Lawyers as Stewards of Justice: Our Professional Ethic to Serve

Many lawyers, even those who occasionally engage in pro bono or volunteer work, view service to vulnerable communities as peripheral to their “real” duties as advocates or litigators.  To the contrary, the ethic to serve is at the heart of a lawyer’s professional life.  The American Bar Association, in the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, highlights the “professional responsibility” of lawyers to ensure equal access for those who face social or economic barriers to the legal system. 1 Far from a fleeting charitable impulse or burdensome additional work, the responsibility to serve deeply impacts the integrity of our justice system and the legal profession as a whole.


If you’re considering applying to law school, it’s critical to understand the essential relationship between lawyering and public service.  Currently, a movement is afoot to require law students to perform pro bono work as a prerequisite to admission to the bar.  For instance, in New York, applicants who successfully pass the 2015 state bar examination must complete 50 hours of pro bono service before admission to practice. 2

Once you commit to law school, you will be part of the law student population that is strongly encouraged to take on public service work.  Law students are encouraged to begin working toward the 50-hour requirement as early as allowable under their school’s policies about student employment.  The work may be tailored to a student’s particular interests, from helping a victim of domestic abuse obtain a temporary restraining order to designing a legal education project for public high schools.  Importantly, student involvement in law school clinics that assist individuals and families in areas such as housing, access to health care, domestic violence, and prisoner rights will fulfill the state pro bono requirement.

“I would like to do pro bono work juvenile or family law to help out lower-income clients who would otherwise not have an attorney.” – Ricky, 3L

In similar fashion, the Illinois Supreme Court recently formed a commission 3 to improve the accessibility of legal services for indigent and marginalized individuals.  

As central to its objectives, the commission seeks to work with law schools in the development and growth of court-based programs that enhance equal access to justice.  Like New York, the Illinois commission singles out law school legal assistance clinics as a critical avenue to expand services for underrepresented communities.  In this vein, the commission highlights the integral contribution of law students, even those without temporary bar licenses.  For example, law students may collaborate to create simplified legal forms and pleadings, research and update law in literature covering common legal problems, or participate in intake interviews for those seeking legal aid.

Wherever you apply to law school, the efforts in New York and Illinois portend an evolving national movement to help instill in students the professional ethic to serve. The focus on law student involvement in access to justice makes sense.  Law schools provide an ideal forum to foster and cultivate the values associated with the professional ethic to serve.  In addition to clinical opportunities, many law schools offer course credit for supervised internships with public interest organizations, governmental agencies, and pro bono-minded law firms.  Others provide funding and support for summer employment in service-related endeavors.  Finally, some law schools offer classes and seminars that focus specifically on professional responsibility in the context of pro bono service and access to justice issues.

For law students, the duty to serve has practical benefits as well.  Service to indigent communities helps students acquire a spectrum of essential lawyering skills and receive an opportunity to apply procedural and substantive law in a “real life” context.  For instance, as a law student, your pro bono service may result in direct work with clients, collaborations with practicing attorneys, or participation in court hearings.  Additionally, you will learn important skills, such as balancing the day-to-day demands of a case, resolving ethical quandaries, and effectively communicating with lawyers and judges.  Providing these services conveys to students the tangible, sometimes life-altering, difference that a little assistance can make to those who would otherwise go without.

When weighing your law school applications, look for schools that pair language about the professional ethic to serve with concrete opportunities to put such ideals into action.  Read the law school’s mission statement, examine their website and directly speak to admissions officers about the school’s commitment to educating graduates to pursue social justice work. In doing so, you will be in step with the developing trend towards pro bono requirements for bar admission. More importantly, you will develop the professional values associated with promoting access to justice and discover the personal fulfillment that results from pursing social justice work.



  1. 1. American Bar Association, Model Rules of Professional Conduct: Preamble and Scope, (1)
  2. 1.    The Legal Profession – Pro Bono, Pro Bono Bar Admission Requirements, New York States Unified Court System,
  3. 1.    Supreme Court, Lawyers Help Ensure Access to Justice, Illinois State Bar Association,