Past, Present, and Future: Cornell Law’s Pro Bono Scholars Program Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

Jason Hoge, attorney from Legal Assistance of Western New York, works with a client

by Suzi Morales

Ten years ago, then–Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York State Court of Appeals introduced a program to encourage law students to take on pro bono legal work while still in law school, with the hope that they would continue to serve the public once they embarked on their careers.

Michaela Azemi (left) speaks with Oscar F. Ruiz Lombana ‘25

Throughout the history of the New York State Pro Bono Scholars Program, Cornell Law School has been an integral part of the program. Now, as the program begins its tenth year, Cornell Law students, alumni, and faculty reflect on the program’s goal of building careers that elevate the public good.


In 2014, Lippman announced an initiative to allow students in their final semester of law school to take the New York State Bar Examination in February, prior to graduation. Following the bar exam, students then commit their final law school semester to full-time pro bono legal work for course credit. Participating law schools also must provide an academic component to accompany the pro bono placement.

The program was the first of its kind in the nation. A few other states now have programs allowing law students to take the bar exam early, but, according to Mindy Jeng, special counsel to the executive director for the New York Office of Court Administration, New York’s program remains the only one incorporating the pro bono requirement.

According to New York Pro Bono Program guidelines, a student’s pro bono placement must provide legal services to people who cannot pay for representation or be with a nonprofit legal services organization addressing the needs of indigent clients or a government entity performing work for individuals with financial hardship or unmet legal needs preventing access to justice. The program, administered by the New York State Unified Court System, was part of New York’s ongoing efforts to encourage public interest lawyering. Two years earlier, in 2012, Lippman had also introduced a requirement of fifty hours of pro bono service prior to New York State bar admission.

As part of the Pro Bono Legal Reentry Assistance program, Cornell Law student Zaria Goicochea ‘26 (left) and Jason Hoge (right), attorney from Legal Assistance of Western New York, work with a client at an Expungement Clinic at the Tompkins County Public Library in October.

From the beginning, Cornell Law embraced the Pro Bono Scholars Program. In the first year the program was available, there were ten Cornell Pro Bono Scholars. The Law School has participated every year since then. According to Michaela Azemi, Cornell Law’s director of public interest and community engagement, the twenty-one students participating in the Class of 2024 are the highest for any school in the state since the program began.

In addition to helping students prepare their applications and find placement organizations, Azemi also teaches the class that accompanies the program. The New York guidelines give schools leeway to shape their Pro Bono Scholars courses. The Cornell Law course includes topics ranging from practical lawyering skills like trauma-informed lawyering to exploring the cycle of poverty. Guest lecturers include former Pro Bono Scholars. Azemi also has collaborated with other New York law schools on workshops on topics like client interviewing.

According to statistics released by the New York State Board of Law Examiners, 94 percent of Pro Bono Scholars statewide passed the February 2021 bar exam, compared with 64 percent of all first-time takers.

According to statistics released by the New York State Board of Law Examiners, 94 percent of Pro Bono Scholars statewide passed the February 2021 bar exam, compared with 64 percent of all first-time takers. “We’re really proud that the scholars have a high bar passage rate,” says Jeng.

Korica Simon ’21 grew up knowing she wanted to be an attorney. She recalls watching “judge TV shows” and reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird. Even so, after her graduation from Auburn University in 2014 with a degree in political science, she wanted to be sure. She took a job with a tech nonprofit, which confirmed her choice and eventually led her to Cornell Law, where she focused on courses and activities at the intersection of technology and criminal law.

Simon calls her law school experience “very much public interest guided.” When she heard about the Pro Bono Scholars Program, she was “super excited” about the opportunity to gain practical experience. “I only wanted to do things in law school that were real-life experiences,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be in a classroom all day, I wanted to be out with the people and doing lawyerly things.” It also didn’t hurt that her birthday is in July and she preferred not to study for the bar then.

As a Pro Bono Scholar, Simon worked in the digital forensics unit at the Legal Aid Society of New York. The unit helped attorneys elsewhere in the organization with an array of digital issues, like warrants for social media accounts and location information. Her passion project was researching the legal implications of remote-controlled robotic dogs—called “Digidogs”—that the New York Police Department had begun using at the time for hostage situations and similar events. The NYPD pulled back the pilot program in 2021 after receiving public backlash, though it announced in 2023 that it will be using the robots again.

“I kind of felt like I had graduated law school early,” Simon says, “because I was pretty much done after the bar exam and now I was working and getting that real-life experience that I wanted.”

According to Simon, her pro bono experience was extremely valuable after graduation. During her first job, with a public defender’s office, she says, “I was completely prepared to take on my first case, to go in the courtroom, and I think I felt more confident in myself.” Today, she is in the first year of a two-year clerkship with the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department in Rochester, which “is probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.” She plans to continue working in public interest after the clerkship.


Cornell Law consistently fields strong classes of Pro Bono Scholars. Over the past few years, placements have been as far away as Hawaii, Texas, and California.

Most of the placements are much closer to home. The New York Pro Bono Scholars guidelines allow students to work with law school experiential learning programs. Around half of the students in the Cornell Law 2024 Pro Bono Scholars are working for Cornell Law clinics and practicums.

One of those students is Justin Cenname, who is working with the Tenants Advocacy Practicum. He jokes that law school consists of 1L, 2L, and “3LOL” as students have their required courses mainly completed and often focus their studies on their personal interests during the third year. He says the Pro Bono Scholars Program is “a really great way to make use of my time.”

Cenname has been involved in the Tenants Advocacy Practicum since the fall of his second year. As a Pro Bono Scholar, he is eager to expand on his work. With forty hours a week to devote to the practicum, Cenname will have capacity that other student attorneys simply don’t.

Like Cenname, 3L Patrick George wants to continue the experiential work he did earlier in law school. George is one of five veterans in the Class of 2024. He joined the Air Force right after he graduated from high school in 2004 and served active duty until 2018. He continues to serve in the reserves. During their second year at Cornell Law, George and the other veterans in his class spearheaded the founding of the Veterans Law Practicum.

George participated in the Veterans Law Practicum during its inaugural semester in the fall of 2023 and now is working there full time as a Pro Bono Scholar. The practicum primarily handles claims relating to disability and
discharge status. In addition to handling cases, George is also working on outreach to area veterans.

“I feel so personally invested in the Veterans Law Practicum and once I learned from Michaela that I could get placed there, absolutely, let me do it,” says George. “I want to stabilize this as much as I can. I want to proselytize for the Veterans Law Practicum and I want to fundraise for the Veterans Law Practicum. I want to reach out to the community. I want to do everything I can.”

George had another good reason to take the bar exam early: His first child was due in early March, just days after the test. “I feel so fortunate for a whole host of reasons,” says George. “To be taking the bar and having a baby within the same week, how lucky am I?”

George hopes his military service will one day inspire his son. “My son hopefully one day will want to give back because of my service, even if he doesn’t serve himself,”
he remarks.


It’s going to be a while before George’s son can follow in his footsteps, but it won’t take George nearly that long to pass the baton to future Pro Bono Scholars.

Zaria Goicochea ’26

During events for admitted students, Azemi says she hears that students have chosen Cornell Law because of the Pro Bono Scholars Program. At least one of those students, now in the Class of 2026, has already been working with Azemi to prepare for the application process as soon as eligible. “Cornell is starting to get a reputation for this program,” she says.

Students like Simon who want to pursue public interest as a career right after law school have a leg up with their hours of experience before graduation. For students like Cenname and George, both of whom are going into private practice at large law firms, the Pro Bono Scholars Program often serves as a springboard for future pro bono work.

Wendong Xue, LL.M. ’24 (left) and Deng Pan, LL.M. ’24

“We are the ‘big law school,’ number one for big law,” remarks Azemi, “and it doesn’t mean that our students are not going out there doing incredible public service. We’re number one for big law, but we’re also number one for Pro Bono Scholars. We’re number one for preparing our students to work with clients with varying degrees of difficulties in their lives who can’t necessarily afford an attorney.”

In the fall—after a well-deserved summer off thanks to the early bar exam—Cenname will be taking a position at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. In addition to aligning with his practice interest in real estate, Cenname says the firm also has a strong pro bono commitment. The National Association for Law Placement Directory of Legal Employers states that up to 300 hours can be counted toward the firm’s billable requirements.

“One of the good parts of the Pro Bono Scholars is that it lets students get involved in pro bono before they get to their firms and maybe they can keep doing that later,” says Cenname. Thanks to his public interest work at Cornell Law, Cenname also has connections with public interest legal services organizations to contact when he wants to do pro bono work once he is working for the firm. His pro bono work also has given him litigation experience that he wouldn’t otherwise have as a transactional attorney.

After graduation, George will be working in the Washington, D.C., office of Latham & Watkins. Coincidentally, Judge Lippman, who founded the Pro Bono Scholars Program, is now of counsel in the firm’s New York office.

“I did not apply to a single firm that didn’t at least advertise a pro bono matching program,” George says. “I’ll work for our major clients and I’ll do great work but I do want to be able to have a pro bono practice and get that experience and have that human contact.” Like Cenname, George plans to look to the network he built with public interest work at Cornell Law as he continues his commitment to pro bono work for veterans.

“Going to law school is a privilege,” says Veterans Law Staff Attorney and Adjunct Professor of Law James Hardwick, who is supervising George’s Pro Bono Scholars work. “Cornell does a great job of reminding students that there is a moral obligation that comes with a law degree. You can come here and have a good career and make good money but the majority of students I’ve met all seem to have a deep appreciation for the responsibility that lies before them”

From left: Deng Pan, LL.M. ’24; Wendong Xue, LL.M. ’24; Oscar F. Ruiz Lombana ’25; Jason Hoge; Zaria Goicochea ’26; and Michaela Azemi

Hardwick notes another benefit to future practitioners who will one day be leaders of their firms: learning to manage a law practice. Working forty hours a week in placements like Cornell Law’s clinics and nonprofit legal services organizations, Pro Bono Scholars will get a glimpse of the daily life in practice to a greater extent than short-term clinic students can. For example, in addition to direct client services and building the capacity of the Veterans Clinic, Hardwick says George helps to build the capacity of the practicum by assisting with the development of an effective case-management system and other managerial tasks associated with building the practicum from the ground up.

Of course, the Pro Bono Scholars themselves aren’t the only ones to benefit from the program. “There’s great benefits to the students in that they get the hands-on experience, they’re working with real clients, and it allows them to see real issues that public interest attorneys face and allows them to do it in an environment where they’re receiving a lot of feedback and a lot of guidance from an attorney supervisor and also their faculty instructor at the law school,” says Jeng of the New York Courts. “The low-income litigants are also hopefully benefiting by the increase in number of people who are available to help with providing legal services.”

When asked about her advice for Cornell Law students considering the Pro Bono Scholars Program, Simon says, “They absolutely should do it. I think that there’s just nothing comparable to the Pro Bono Scholars Program. You get really great experience practicing and working with attorneys, and I think it can really help build your confidence before you’re off into the world and practicing as an attorney. I cannot recommend it enough.”

When he announced the Pro Bono Scholars Program back in 2014, Judge Lippman said, “Together we can lay a cornerstone for the future of legal education, for lawyers, and for the vital services they provide in New York and around the nation, to rich and poor, high and low alike.”

A decade in, that vision is thriving at Cornell Law.