1876-1965: Early Years of Legal Aid

Most of what we know today as poverty law and law reform (e.g., welfare law, housing law, consumer law, and health law) did not exist, even in concept, in the early days of legal aid.

1865-1960s: Pioneering efforts and expansion

Prior to sustained, institutionalized efforts to provide legal aid to the poor, organizations and individual lawyers provided legal assistance to those who could not afford an attorney. The Freedman’s Bureau (1865-1872) provided legal assistance in civil cases, such as debt collection, domestic violence, divorces, and labor contracts. Nineteenth-century women’s clubs and settlement houses developed a holistic approach to legal assistance for working women. For example, in Chicago, the Protective Agency for Women and Children (PAWC) pioneered an especially expansive model of legal aid. Like its counterparts in other cities, PAWC handled wage claims, but it also helped women with a range of other issues: domestic violence, sexual assault, household debt, spousal abandonment, and even, although only in extreme circumstances, divorce.

German Immigrants’ Society (predecessor to the Legal Aid Society of New York)

Sustained efforts to provide civil legal assistance for poor people in the United States began in New York City in 1876 with the founding of the German Immigrants’ Society, the predecessor to the Legal Aid Society of New York. In 1889 the Society’s outreach was extended to all low-income New York residents, and its role expanded from serving
individual clients to engaging in legislative advocacy. Its once-narrow focus grew into a new mission: to promote measures for the protection of all individual poor people.

Heterogeneous expansion

Over the years, the legal aid movement caught on and expanded into many urban areas. Between 1920 and 1930, 30 new legal aid organizations were created. Annual caseloads
increased from 171,000 in 1920 to 307,000 in 1932. By 1965, virtually every major city in the United States had some kind of legal aid program, and the 236 legal aid organizations employed more than 400 full-time lawyers with an aggregate budget of over $5 million.

The only national legal aid structure that existed prior to the 1960s was the National Alliance of Legal Aid Societies (predecessor to the National Legal Aid and Defender
Association [NLADA]), which was founded in 1911. Despite the existence of this association, most programs operated in isolation from their counterparts in other
jurisdictions. With no national program or commonly accepted standards or models, the legal aid world was very heterogeneous. Many legal aid programs were free-standing
private corporations with paid staff; others were run as committees of bar associations, relying primarily on private lawyers who donated their time. Still others were units of municipal governments or divisions of social service agencies, and others were run by law schools.

Inadequate resources, limited service, and underserved areas

Regardless of the structure, these programs shared many common characteristics. First and foremost, no legal aid program had adequate resources. It has been estimated that
during its early years, legal aid reached less than 1 percent of those in need.

Many areas of the country had no legal aid at all, and those legal aid programs that did exist were woefully underfunded. For example, in 1963, the legal aid program that served the city of Los Angeles had annual funding of approximately $120,000 to serve more than 450,000 poor people. In that year, the national ratio of legal aid lawyers to eligible persons was 1 to 120,000. In addition, most legal aid programs only provided services in a limited range of cases and only to those clients who were thought to be among the “deserving poor” (i.e., those who were facing legal problems through no fault of their own).

The American Bar Association’s initial involvement

Carnegie Foundation funds Reginald Heber Smith to write book “Justice and the Poor”

In 1919, Reginald Heber Smith, a young Harvard Law School graduate who had become Director of the Boston Legal Aid Society, received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to
research the current legal system and its effect on the poor. Smith wrote Justice and the Poor, a book that challenged the legal profession to ensure that access to justice was available to all, without regard to ability to pay. “Without equal access to the law,” he wrote, “the system not only robs the poor of their only protection, but it places in the hands of their oppressors the most powerful and ruthless weapon ever invented.”

ABA’s 1920 annual meeting establishes standing committee

The American Bar Association (ABA) responded to Smith’s call in 1920 by devoting a section of its 43rd annual meeting to legal aid and by creating the Standing Committee on Legal Aid, later changed to the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID), to ensure continued ABA involvement in the delivery of legal assistance to the poor. Many state and local bars responded by sponsoring new legal aid programs.

Modest benefits

However, the ABA initiative and the bar programs made only modest headway in achieving the goal of equal access to justice. In part, because of inadequate resources and
the impossibly large number of eligible clients, legal aid programs generally gave only perfunctory service to a high volume of clients. Legal aid lawyers and volunteers rarely went to court for their clients. Appeals on behalf of legal aid clients were virtually nonexistent. No one providing legal aid contemplated using administrative representation, lobbying, or community legal education to remedy clients’ problems. As a result, the legal aid program provided little real benefit to most of the individual clients it served and had no lasting effect on the client population as a whole.

Most of what we know today as poverty law and law reform (e.g., welfare law, housing law, consumer law, and health law) did not exist, even in concept, in the early days of legal aid.

1960s: The Need for “Something New”

Law reform and the anti-poverty model

In the early 1960s, a new model for civil legal assistance for the poor began to emerge. This model was influenced by the “law reform” efforts of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had successfully used litigation to produce changes in existing law. In addition, private charitable foundations, particularly the Ford Foundation, began to fund legal services demonstration projects as part of multi-service agencies, based on a philosophy that legal services should be a component of an overall anti-poverty effort.

This new model also called for the programs’ offices to be located in the urban neighborhoods where the majority of the poor resided, rather than in downtown areas where many of the legal aid societies of the time were located, far removed from their client populations. Mobilization for Youth in New York, Action for Boston Community Development, the Legal Assistance Association in New Haven, Connecticut, and the United Planning Organization in Washington, D.C., were among the earliest legal services programs of this type.

1964 Yale Law Journal publishes Edgar and Jean Cahn’s article “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective.”

These delivery models lacked a cohesive conceptual framework until legal services advocates Edgar and Jean Cahn wrote a seminal article in the 1964 Yale Law Journal entitled “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective.” They argued that neighborhood law offices and neighborhood lawyers were necessary for an effective anti-poverty program because they provided a vehicle for poor residents in local communities to influence anti-poverty policies and the agencies responsible for distributing benefits.

June 1964: Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach speech

As the demonstration projects began to move beyond the traditional legal aid model of limited assistance for individual clients to a model that looked to the law as a vehicle for societal reform, Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach gave voice to the need for a change in how legal assistance programs were administered. During a speech at a U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare conference in June 1964, Katzenbach set the tone for the conference and the future of legal services:

There has been long and devoted service to the legal problems of the poor by legal aid societies and public defenders in many cities. But, without disrespect to this important work, we cannot translate our new concern [for the poor] into successful action simply by providing more of the same. There must be new techniques, new services, and new forms of interprofessional cooperation to match our new interest….There are signs, too, that a new breed of lawyers is emerging, dedicated to using the law as an instrument of orderly and constructive social change.

The Katzenbach speech had two interrelated themes that were to recur repeatedly in the early years of federally funded legal services:

  1. Something new was needed—well-funded traditional legal aid was not adequate; and
  2. The law could be used as an instrument for orderly and constructive social change.