1967-72: OEO legal services develops support infrastructure

Federal funding for civil legal aid began under the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) through its Office of Legal Services (OLS). Earl Johnson was the second director of OEO legal services, serving during 1967-68. Johnson focused on “law reform” for the poor as the chief goal of OEO legal services.

Johnson chose atypical implementation methods, such as creating the the Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship Program. Under his leadership, OEO legal services also created a unique national structure of advocacy, support, training, technical assistance and information sharing. No other legal aid system had such a structure.

The back-up centers
OEO invested significant funding in what were called the “back-up centers”. These were national programs, initially housed in law schools, organized around substantive areas or a particular part of the eligible population. These centers engaged in national litigation and legislative and administrative representation to eligible clients while providing support, assistance and training to local programs. These centers provided specialized representation and specialized knowledge that was essential to the development of new areas of poverty law. They also provided leadership on key substantive issues and worked closely with the national poor people’s movements of the early legal services years (e.g., the National Welfare Rights Movement and the National Tenants Organization).

At the end of the OEO era in YEAR?, the following national centers were fully functioning:

  • Center for Law & Education–Cambridge, MA
  • Center on Social Welfare Policy & Law—New York, NY
  • Indian Law Support Center–Boulder, CO (part of the Native American Rights Fund)
  • Migrant Legal Action Program–Washington, DC
  • National Consumer Law Center–Boston, MA
  • National Economic Development & Law Center—Berkeley, CA
  • National Employment Law Project—New York, NY
  • National Health Law Program–Los Angeles, CA
  • National Housing Law Project–Berkeley, CA
  • National Juvenile Law Center–St. Louis, MO
  • National Senior Citizens Law Center–Los Angeles, CA
  • National Social Science & Law Project–Washington, DC
  • Youth Law Center–San Francisco, CA

Johnson, in his first history of the OEO legal services program (Justice and Reform: The Formative Years of the OEO Legal Services Program, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1974 at 180-82), emphasized the major strengths of the back-up centers as follows:

  • They were funded solely to bring test cases and advocate for legislative change.
  • They would not be accountable to local boards of directors.
  • They were responsible for an “inordinate proportion” of the program’s impact on economic and social problems.
  • They were experts.
  • They could provide training and research materials.

OEO also funded several national publications:

  • Clearinghouse Review was produced by the National Clearinghouse and described poverty law developments.
  • Poverty Law Reporter reported on cases. The Poverty Law Reporter, a Commerce Clearinghouse loose-leaf service, was discontinued by LSC in 1980.
  • Law in Action, published by OEO for a brief period, publicized legal services victories.
  • Welfare Law Bulletin was published by NYU Law School.

National training and technical assistance programs
OEO also funded national training and technical assistance programs first at Northwestern University Law School and later at Catholic University Law School. The national training events played a key role in assuring effective coordination among programs over newly emerging issues and linked key substantive advocates within local programs to each other and to the national experts in the support centers or elsewhere.

Technical Assistance on management issues was provided by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

A National Paralegal Institute provided support to paralegals.

State support programs
A few state support programs were also developed. They provided state level advocacy (major litigation, administrative and legislative policy advocacy) and coordination in states with a larger number of local programs. They increased training and facilitated a more direct link between local advocates and national experts. The following state support centers were created:

  • Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
  • Western Center on Law and Poverty (California)
  • Michigan Legal Services
  • Ohio State Legal Services
  • Greater Upstate Law Project (New York)
  • Legal Services of New Jersey