When fully implemented, he said, the program will provide more than 15,000 hours of free legal service to the Philadelphia area each year.
Under the plan, students are to do free public-service work during their second and third years of law school. Officials said the work might include giving legal advice to the poor, helping draft legislation or advising nonprofit organizations.
Howard Lesnick, a Penn law professor and chairman of the Law School's education program committee, said he hoped the new requirement would spur students to do more pro bono work after they graduate.
"The message that students get more and more is that all that matters is the bottom line and that you've got to think of nothing but billing time," Lesnick said. "We want to salvage what has always been recognized as part of the professional idea - that a lawyer devotes a significant proportion of time to unpaid service work."
The only other law school with a public-service requirement is at Tulane University, which last fall began requiring law students to do 20 hours of public service to graduate, according to Penn officials.
Several Philadelphia lawyers yesterday praised Penn's new requirement. Peter Hearn, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, called it "a wonderful idea." He added, "My hat is off to Penn."
Jonathan Stein, general counsel at Community Legal Services, the federally funded agency that represents poor people, also hailed the new requirement.
"It is one of the best things I have heard from any law school in years," said Stein, a 1967 graduate of Penn Law who has publicly criticized what he has called the school's lack of commitment to public-interest law in recent years.
"This is a major step which deserves a big pat on the back," Stein said. ''It may begin to bring Penn Law back as a model for progressive law schools, a reputation it may have been losing."
Stein urged that students be given academic credit for public service so the requirement doesn't have "second-class status" at the law school.
Now, first-year Penn Law students are required to take a course on professional responsibility, which focuses on ethical issues in the law.
In addition, the law school offers four scholarships each year for students who plan to enter public-interest law. It also forgives a portion of school loans taken out by law students who go into public-service work.
According to experts, the need to repay student loans that cover steep tuition charges at the nation's major law schools have discouraged graduates
from pursuing relatively low-paying jobs in public-interest law.
Tuition and fees at Penn Law are now $13,780 a year. Last year, less than 2 percent of the 216 graduates went into public-interest law, according to school officials.