Aspiring lawyers in New York State must perform 50 hours of free legal work to gain entry to the state bar under a first-of-its-kind requirement handed down yesterday aimed at expanding access to the legal system for the poor.


The rule, written by New York's top-ranking judge, takes effect in 2015 and applies to all future law school students and those currently in their first or second years. Existing third-year students are exempt.


Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman estimated the requirement will add as much as 500,000 hours of pro bono service each year. Only 20 percent of the need for legal services is being met in New York, he said, even though state officials this year agreed to double funding for legal service programs to $25 million.


"No matter how much money we're able to get through public funding, a large part of this has to be pro bono service on the part of the bar," Lippman said in an interview.


Advocates for legal aid for the poor applauded the rule, which is unique to New York State.


But the requirement comes as law students, many of whom graduate with heavy debt, face an uncertain job market.

A June report from the National Association of Law Placement found that fewer than two-thirds of 2011 graduates had landed a job that required an attorney license, the lowest percentage since the group began its annual survey in 1974.

Last year, there were 15,000 applicants to the New York bar.