1975-1981: Legal Services Corporation

The Gestation Period

1971: Idea of independent LSC proposed in legislation

Within the organized bar, the Nixon Administration, the Congress, and the legal services community, the idea of an independent legal services entity began to take root. In 1971, an ABA study committee headed by Jerry Shestack and the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Reorganization (known as the Ash Council) both recommended the creation of a private, nonprofit corporation, separate from the federal government, to receive funds appropriated by Congress and distribute them to local legal services programs.

A bipartisan group in Congress led by Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Representative Steiger (R-WI) introduced authorizing legislation in February 1971. In May of that year, President Nixon introduced his own version of the legislation, which proposed creation of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), calling it a new direction to make legal services “immune to political pressures…and a permanent part of our system of justice.” At the same time, Nixon’s bill proposed a number of restrictions on legal services advocates that were not in the Economic Opportunity Act. These included prohibitions on lobbying, organizing, and political activities by staff attorneys.

December 1971: Nixon vetoes an LSC bill

In December 1971, President Nixon vetoed legislation that Congress had passed establishing LSC. His veto was primarily based on the fact that the legal services provisions were part of a larger package of legislation containing a national child care program,which he opposed. However, he also vetoed the bill because the legal services provisions sharply circumscribed the President’s power to appoint the LSC board and did not include all of the restrictions on legal services advocacy that Nixon had sought. This legislation would have given the President power to appoint all the LSC board members, but it also would have required 11 of the 16 board members to be appointed from lists supplied by various interest groups, including the ABA, the American Trial Lawyers Association, and NLADA. Congress did not have enough votes to override the veto. Legal services supporters supported the bill because they feared that a board appointed solely by the President would inevitably include people who would work to undermine or fundamentally alter the program and its mission.

1973: Nixon proposes new LSC bill, Senate produces compromise bill

In May 1973, President Nixon again proposed a bill to create the LSC. The President was fresh from re-election and was not feeling as much pressure to please everyone as he had during the campaign, so this proposal contained additional restrictions on legal services programs and their advocates. The House Committee wrote exceptions to these restrictions, but the original restrictions were reinstated following debate on the House floor. In the end, 24 restrictive amendments were appended to the bill, limiting the types of cases legal services attorneys could take, restricting lobbying and rulemaking, limiting class actions, and eliminating training and back-up centers. The back-up centers were a favorite target of conservatives because they were seen as the breeding ground for legal services activism and the incubator for law reform efforts.

Action in the Senate, however, had a much different tone. A unanimous Labor and Public Welfare Committee produced bipartisan legislation that carefully preserved the ability of the legal services program to provide the full range of representation to all eligible clients. Like the House bill, it allowed the President to appoint all of the board members, but the appointees would have to be confirmed by the Senate. And most importantly, it had the support of the Nixon Administration, since White House staff was involved in the negotiations to craft the bill.

Despite the Administration’s support, conservative members of the Senate did not fall into line behind the bipartisan bill. A group of conservative Senators engaged in a filibuster by introducing more than 120 amendments to the bill establishing LSC. There were three cloture votes to cut off debate over a three-month period before the Senate finally considered the legislation. In the end, only a few of the proposed amendments were adopted by the Senate,and, with the exception of a prohibition on some abortion litigation, the restrictions that passed would not have represented significant barriers to the full representation of eligible poor people.

The Conference Committee produced a bill that was closer to the Senate bill than the House version. The restrictions that remained in the Conference bill dealt with representation in cases dealing with non-therapeutic abortions, school desegregation, selective service, and some instances of juvenile representation. The bill also imposed restrictions on outside practice of law and political activities by staff attorneys. However, the Conference bill did preserve the back-up centers and maintained the ability of legal services advocates to represent eligible clients before legislative bodies and in administrative rulemaking.

1974: At Nixon’s insistence, final LSC Act includes Green amendment

The Conference Report passed both houses, although the vote in the House was very close. Nevertheless, conservatives made their continued support of President Nixon in the impeachment hearings contingent on his veto of the LSC bill unless an amendment that they thought would eliminate the back-up centers was added to the bill. The President demanded that the LSC bill include the so-called “Green amendment” (named after Rep. Edith Green, a conservative Democratic Congresswoman from Oregon). However, the actual language of the Green amendment was not successful in eliminating major impact litigation and national advocacy and only placed certain limited restrictions on training, technical assistance, and research. Therefore, LSC supporters did not withdraw their support of the bill even though the Green amendment was added. President Nixon signed the bill into law on July 25, 1974.

(See Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974, Pub. L. No. 93-355, 88 Stat. 378, 42 U.S.C. §2996 [1994]). The Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974 was one of the last bills that President Nixon signed into law before he resigned from office in August 1974.

Related oral histories

Bennett, H. Michael — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2004 May 27
Was the lobbyist to get the LSC Act through Congress.

Houseman, Alan — Interview by Victor Geminiani, 1991 Oct 31
Was the assistant lobbyist to get the LSC Act through Congress.

Garment, Leonard — Interview by Jim Flug, 2002 Jul 24
Was Counsel to President Nixon during efforts to get Nixon Administration support for the Senate bill, which brought on moderate Senate Republican support.

Meeds, Lloyd — Interview by Robert Rhudy, 2002 Jul 18
Former congressman. Was one of many who played a major role.

Pollack, Ronald — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2018 Mar 02
Only a small portion of his interview covers LSC creation.

Shestack, Jerome — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2002 Aug 08
Was a major player in the ABA at the time.

Smith, Chesterfield — Interview by Martha Bergmark, 2002 Aug 09
President of the ABA and led ABA efforts to suppor creation of the LSC.

The Early LSC Era: Growth and Expansion

1975: First LSC board sworn in and takes control

The LSC Act created a private, nonprofit corporation that was controlled by an independent,bipartisan Board, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. No more than six of the Board’s 11 members could come from the same political party. The initial selection of Board members was delayed by President Nixon’s resignation. It took almost a year for President Gerald Ford to appoint and the Senate to confirm the first LSC Board of Directors.

Opponents of LSC urged the President to appoint several leading critics of the program to the Board. On July 14, 1975, the first of Board of Directors of LSC was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, who had led the ABA in endorsing legal services. The Board was chaired by Roger Cramton, Dean of Cornell Law School and former Chair of the Administrative Conference of the U.S., and included, among others, Robert Kutak, who later headed the ABA Committee that drafted the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and Revius Ortique, Jr., a prominent lawyer from New Orleans who had been on the original National Advisory Committee and had been President of the National Bar Association. The first LSC Board included both liberal and conservative members, but all were supportive of the basic goals of the legal services program, the delivery of effective and efficient legal services to poor people. Ninety days after the Board was confirmed, on October 12, 1975, LSC officially took control of the federal legal services program from the Community Services Administration, the successor to OEO.

During the year-long delay before the LSC Board was confirmed, the legal services community and the organized bar worked to prepare for the establishment of the Legal Services Corporation. Of particular note was the development of a complete set of model regulations by the “Umbrella Group” consisting of representatives of the ABA, NLADA, PAG,and the National Clients Council, the organization funded by OEO and later by LSC that represented clients of the federally funded legal services programs. These model regulations set the framework for many of the final regulations that were ultimately promulgated by LSC.

Initial policies set LSC direction

The new Board’s decisions on major policy issues—selecting a staff that included many experienced legal services advocates, continuing support for the national back-up centers,maintaining a strong national training and communications capacity, adopting regulations that permitted legal services attorneys to provide full professional representation to the low-income community, and maintaining the basic staff attorney structure of the program—all reflected a desire to ensure that the poor received effective legal representation and an appreciation of the merits of the existing delivery system. The delivery and support structure put in place by OEO was carried over fundamentally unchanged by LSC when it began to function in 1975.

The Board selected Thomas Ehrlich, the former Dean of Stanford Law School to serve as the first LSC President. Former OEO Office of Legal Services Director Clint Bamberger, who had also served as Dean of the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University, was selected to serve as Executive Vice President. The new LSC staff worked out of the national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Nine regional offices were spread across the country.

Initially, there was some tension between the legal services field programs and the LSC staff and Board. Several field leaders were worried that LSC would serve simply as the enforcer of restrictions. Nevertheless, the relationship shortly evolved into one of close collaboration, quite similar to the relationship that had existed between field programs and OEO. LSC related to legal services programs through regional offices, training programs, technical assistance, and substantive law conferences.

The regional offices played a critical role in expanding the legal services program to previously unserved areas of the country, and they worked closely with the leaders of local programs in their regions. While LSC was somewhat more bureaucratic than OEO had been, the new LSC, like OEO, de-emphasized its regulatory compliance role in favor of incentives, encouragement, assistance, and a spirit of partnership.

President Carter appoints new LSC board chaired by Hillary Rodham

President Jimmy Carter appointed a new LSC Board to replace those members who had been appointed by President Ford. The new Board was chaired by Hillary Rodham, then a private practitioner and the wife of the young Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. The Board also included F. William McCalpin, who had been instrumental in garnering ABA support for the legal services program, and Mickey Kantor, a successful lawyer and political activist who had been a legal services lawyer and a staff member at OEO.

In 1978, the LSC Board named Dan Bradley to replace Tom Ehrlich as LSC President. Bradley was a former legal services attorney who had once served as the LSC regional director in Atlanta and as special assistant to the director of the Community Services Administration, which replaced OEO when it was dismantled in 1972.

Related oral histories

Askew, Hulett “Bucky” — Interview by Victor Geminiani, 1991 Jul 22
Directed the southern regional office in Atlanta, then deputy director of an LSC office in Washington, DC.

Bamberger, Clinton — Interview by Christopher Brown, 2002 Jun 04
First vice-president of LSC.

Clinton, Hillary – Interview by Victor Geminiani, 1991 Jul 21
Second board chair of LSC.

Ehrlich, Thomas — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2004 May 27
First president of LSC.

Houseman, Alan — Interview by Linda Perle, 2018 Jan 22
Director of research institute at LSC and various other roles.

Lyons, Clinton “Clint” — Interview by Victor Geminiani, 1991 Jul 23
LSC staff insider. Deputy director of the southern regional office in Atlanta, then director of an LSC office in Washington, DC.

McCalpin, Bill — Interview by Linda Perle, 2002 Aug 09
LSC board member and ultimately board chair.

Perle, Linda – Interview by Alan Houseman, 2018 Jan. 22
LSC staff insider who played various roles.

Singsen III, Antoine G. — Interview by Victor Geminiani, 1991 Nov 01
Ultimately became LSC vice-president after Bamberger.

Tull, John — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2016 Nov 10


LSC funding and expansion strategy serves all 50 states

Most of the initial efforts of the new Corporation went into obtaining increased funds for the program from Congress. LSC conducted a study of the funding levels of local programs in relation to the population they served and found that over 40 percent of the nation’s poor people lived in areas where there was no legal services program at all, and many of those living in the remaining areas had only token access to legal assistance. On the basis of that report, the Corporation developed a “minimum access” plan, with the goal of providing a level of federal funding for LSC programs in every area of the country, including those where no programs had been established, that would support two lawyers for every 10,000 poor persons, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of poverty.

This funding and expansion strategy proved highly successful. LSC was able to transform the federal legal services program from one that had only served the predominantly urban areas of the nation to a program that provided legal assistance to poor people in virtually every county in the United States and in most of the U.S. territories.

In 1975, LSC inherited a program that was funded at $71.5 million annually. By 1981, the LSC budget had grown to $321.3 million. Most of this increase went into expanding to previously unserved areas, creating new legal services programs and greatly increasing the capacity of existing ones.

Based on the 1970 census figures, out of a total of 29 million poor people in 1975, 11.7 million had no access to a legal services program, and 8.1 million had access only to programs that were severely under-funded. In contrast, by 1981, LSC was funding 325 programs that operated in 1,450 neighborhood and rural offices throughout all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Micronesia, and Guam.

Although legal services program resources were still extremely limited, by 1981, LSC had achieved, albeit briefly, the initial goal of reaching “minimum access.” Each legal services program received LSC funding at a level sufficient to theoretically support two lawyers for every 10,000 poor people in its service area.

Private attorney involvement

1976 and 1980: LSC conducts the Delivery System Study

The LSC-funded legal services program has always been a primarily staff attorney system. Beginning in the early 1980s, the ABA and LSC made a significant effort to involve private attorneys in the delivery of civil legal services. The organized bar was generally supportive of LSC. But certain segments of the legal profession remained unfamiliar with legal services practice, felt threatened by legal services advocacy, and were sometimes hostile to LSC’s mission. Many of these lawyers had urged Congress when it was considering the passage of the LSC Act to require LSC to provide funding for private attorneys through judicare programs and other mechanisms that would compensate private attorneys for providing legal assistance to eligible clients.

In response to those urgings, Congress included in the original LSC Act a provision that required LSC to conduct a study of alternatives to the staff attorney system to determine whether private attorneys could provide high-quality, economical, and effective legal services to eligible low-income clients.

The Delivery System Study, which LSC conducted between 1976 and 1980, found that none of the alternative delivery models tested performed better than the staff attorney model. The study also found that independent judicare programs that included staffed components, contracts with law firms, and organized pro bono programs met all of the feasibility and performance criteria to be judged viable for the delivery of publicly funded legal assistance to the poor. LSC initially responded to the study by proposing a policy to encourage, but not require, private attorney involvement (PAI), particularly through probono programs. However, the ABA, which was then leading an unprecedented effort to prevent the Reagan Administration from eliminating LSC and funding legal services through social services block grants, adopted a resolution at its 1980 annual meeting urging Congress to amend the LSC Act “to mandate the opportunity for substantial involvement of private lawyers in providing legal services to the poor.” In a 1981 LSC reauthorization bill, the House of Representatives incorporated the ABA position, but the legislation was never taken up by the Senate.

1981: LSC requires LSC programs to reserve funds for private attorney involvement

Before Congress could act, the LSC staff and Board responded with a 1981 instruction directing its grantees to use a substantial amount of their funds to provide opportunities for the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of legal assistance to eligible clients. LSC later clarified this instruction to mandate programs to use an amount equivalent to 10 percent of their LSC funds for PAI activities. In 1984, LSC adopted a formal regulation that raised the required PAI allocation to an amount equal to 12.5 percent of a program’s LSC grant. Most PAI activities went to increase pro bono efforts, although many programs used judicare, contracts, or other compensated arrangements as components of their PAI efforts.

Private attorneys began co-counseling with legal services attorneys on large cases and accepting individual client referrals from legal services programs. By exposing private attorneys first-hand to the realities of legal services practice and by creating partnerships between private attorneys and legal services advocates, hostility to LSC and its programs diminished substantially.

Private lawyers across the country have, along with the ABA and state and local bar associations, become staunch allies of LSC and its local legal services programs. Today, approximately 150,000 private attorneys participate in pro bono programs across the United States.


The second half of the 1970s marked the heyday of growth for the legal services program:

  • Local legal services programs were established to provide service to poor people in every county in the country.
  • A network of migrant and Native American programs or units of local programs was created, covering most areas where those special client populations lived or worked.
  • A system of state support began to emerge.
  • Several new national support centers were established.
  • LSC began a national training program for lawyers.
  • The number of legal services program staff around the country increased significantly.
  • LSC funding rose dramatically from $92.3 million in 1976 to $321 million in 1981.
  • In 1977, Congress reauthorized the LSC Act for an additional three years.

Despite the efforts by critics in the early 1970s to destroy the legal services program, once it was established LSC became an effective institution with broad-based support from Congress,the bar, and the general public. As a consequence, effective enforcement of the rights of the low-income community was becoming a reality. In many areas of the country—especially the South, Southwest, and Plains states, where legal services programs had never before existed—this enforcement was happening for the very first time. The significant legal victories of the 1960s, which established new constitutional, statutory, and common-law rights for the poor, were finally becoming a reality for low-income clients who lived where legal services had not previously been available.

With the growth of the legal services program came significant changes in the ways in which poverty advocacy was conducted and in the manner in which services were delivered, along with changes in the role of LSC. At the local and state level, advocates became more specialized. Separate units for “law reform” work that had been the hallmark of OEO-funded legal services programs were incorporated into the general framework of the program, and efforts were made to better integrate law reform and basic service work. Local program staff received more and better training, and coordination between and among programs increased. New fields of poverty law emerged, such as advocacy for persons with disabilities,veterans, nursing home residents, the institutionalized and other groups with special problems of access to legal services. Paralegals developed into full-fledged advocates and included among their numbers many former clients, as well as former social workers and community activists. Quality improved, but national standards were not fully developed until1986 when the ABA promulgated Standards for Providers of Civil Legal Services to the Poor. Programs and advocates became more professional. Increased attention was devoted to supervision of legal work, case reviews, evaluation, and other methods of ensuring high quality representation.

As the legal services program expanded nationally, a new focus also developed at the local level. Local control became the new legal services mantra. Local priority setting required by the LSC Act became a central tenet in determining how each program would decide which substantive areas to emphasize and which types of cases to accept for representation.

LSC made no effort to directly set national substantive goals, but its staff conducted research and analysis to enable it to provide programs with options and ideas for local consideration. LSC created the Research Institute, which provided poverty law research, conducted seminars on emerging poverty law issues, and developed new issues. The Office of Program Support conducted an extensive training program and produced a large number of substantive and skills manuals. National support centers continued to engage in both support and direct representation, but their influence on local substantive work waned as the number of major constitutional and statutory cases declined and regulatory and law enforcement practice that required sustained advocacy at the state and local level increased. Many more local and state advocates emerged as new national leaders on substantive areas of law, often working in conjunction with advocates from state and national support centers.