Legal Services Corporation at 50: Ten Lessons from its History

Subtitle: Wisdom and war stories from someone who was present at the creation of LSC and its biggest battles. Combines crucial history, insights, and wise advice.

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Focus organization: CNEJL
Publisher: MIE Journal
Date (approx.): Mar 25, 2024
Actual title:
Creator: Houseman, Alan
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Format: Journal article
State: National
Law type: Civil
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Lists: Best
Topics: LSC: Creation, LSC: Restrictions, and OEO Legal Services
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Last modified: 2024-04-18 04:51

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LSC at 50: Ten lessons from its history

Wisdom and war stories from someone who was present at creation of the LSC and its biggest battles.

10 Lessons from LSC History
1. Never forget where you came from.
2. Big ideas inspire big deeds, especially by youth.
3. Be entrepreneurial, then institutionalize.
4. Build a broad coalition: Keep educating the Democrats.
5. Build a broad coalition: Never give up on Republicans.
6. Build a broad coalition: Hug the Bar.
7. Survive: Get the best deal you can and stay alive.
8. Adapt and be flexible.
9. Build a broad coalition: Tell your story.
10. Be effective for your clients.

This year the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is 50 years old and I am 80. We are both still kicking. As we celebrate the big birthday, here are some lessons from one who was present at the creation of the LSC and for its biggest battles.

1. Never forget where you came from
You must evolve. But never forget. Otherwise you may lose through neglect what was won through struggle.

Everyone in the legal aid movement should know the basic history. On July 25, 1974, President Nixon signed the Legal Services Act that created LSC (then resigned August 9, 1974). In the early 1980s the LSC was almost defunded and destroyed by the Reagan Administration. In 1996 the LSC was almost defunded, and was subjected to new restrictions on its grantees which remain today. The LSC thrived under Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama and Biden.

Beyond the dry history, if you want to hear stories from legal aid movement leaders from those days, check out https://legalaidhistory.org. That is the website of the Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library (CNEJL), a nonprofit dedicated to preserving this history. Our website has a treasure trove of 135 oral histories (with full transcripts), narrative histories of civil and defender legal aid, selected case summaries, and much more.

2. Big ideas inspire big deeds, especially by youth
Two big themes set the stage for what became the LSC. First, something new was needed. Well-funded traditional legal aid was inadequate. Second, the law could be used as an instrument for orderly and constructive social change. In 1964, these themes were defined and fleshed out in a seminal article in the Yale Law Journal by Edgar and Jean Cahn, and in a speech by US Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach.

This vision caught fire with a generation of idealistic young lawyers who were the vanguard of the movement that launched and supported the LSC. From the late 1960s to 1985, 2,000 graduating law school students received federally funded Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowships. Known as “Reggies”, these young social justice lawyers were funded to work one or two years in legal services programs around the country. Many Reggies became local or national leaders.

3. Be entrepreneurial, then institutionalize
Before the LSC, there was OEO Legal Services. Its leaders were entrepreneurs and architects. They leveraged some funding and freedom to create a new federally-funded civil legal aid program. Later the LSC institutionalized this program as an independent entity with a strong foundation that could survive the storms of politics.

As part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the 1964 Equal Opportunity Act created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in the White House. Legal services was not mentioned in the original Act. Jean and Edgar Cahn convinced Sargent Shriver, the first director of OEO, to include legal services in the package of activities that could be funded by OEO.

The overall design for the legal services program was developed under the first two directors of OEO Legal Services, Clint Bamberger and Earl Johnson. OEO Legal Services created federal funding for civil legal services that previously had never existed. It funded staff attorney legal aid programs, not the Judicare model. Some of these local programs existed before. Some were new, such as California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). Finally, OEO Legal Services funded a support framework comprised of training and technical assistance, a clearinghouse function, and a comprehensive network of national support centers organized around specific substantive areas (such as welfare reform) or client populations.

By 1968, a total of 260 OEO programs were operating in 49 states. The legal services budget grew from $25 million in 1966 to $71.5 million in 1972. OEO Legal Services overcame challenges from local Community Action Agencies, California Governor Ronald Reagan, some in the organized bar, and some in the Nixon Administration.

Legal services lawyers funded by OEO Legal Services won court victories and negotiated with administrative agencies to fundamentally reshape how governments treated poor and marginalized Americans.

LSC built on this strong foundation. LSC got a strong start when its board named as the first LSC President Thomas Ehrlich, a prominent lawyer, academic and public official. By 1981, the LSC budget grew to $321 million with much of the increase used to serve every county in the US and its territories.

4. Build a broad coalition: Keep educating the Democrats
Never take the Democrats for granted. LSC has enjoyed strong support from Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Biden and from Democratic members of Congress. It’s crucial for legal aid programs to ensure even sympathetic members and their staff understand how civil legal aid serves their constituents. Staff come and go so you may need to start over to educate new staff.

5. Build a broad coalition: Never give up on Republicans
The LSC will always be viewed politically. Politics is about addition, not subtraction. You will never get support from everyone. But never stop trying to broaden your coalition. When you are counting floor votes or begging a committee chair for funding, you don’t have the luxury of dismissing any possible supporter. We who lobbied for the LSC never gave up on seeking Republican support even when least expected. Republican support was often prompted by the effectiveness of civil legal aid in helping constituents. (See lesson 10: “Be effective”.)

The original LSC bill was sponsored by Sen. Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Rep. William Steiger (R-WI). It had broad bipartisan support, not only from liberal Republicans like Sen. Jacob Javitz (R-NY), but also from Sen. Robert Taft, Jr (R-OH). Republican President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, partly for unrelated reasons. Nixon then included many of the vetoed bill’s ideas in a new LSC bill that he proposed and that became the framework for the 1974 law. After the final conference report cleared Congress, Nixon was facing impeachment and needed political support from conservative Republicans opposed to the LSC bill. Nixon signed it anyway.

In the 1980s, President Reagan tried to defund the LSC and appointed an LSC board hostile to its mission. (During this tough time, acting LSC President Clint Lyons and Bucky Askew stabilized LSC.) We would have been in serious trouble without Sen. Warren Rudman (R-NH). Fortunately, he had previously served as Attorney General of his state where he respected the legal aid programs. Rudman resented the lies of the Reagan LSC board. In 1987, Rudman said on the floor of the US Senate, “I do not trust the board of the Legal Services Corporation farther than I can throw the Capitol. They have double-crossed [us] at every possible opportunity. Frankly, I am sick of it…” Rudman was the crucial Republican supporter of the LSC during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1996, when LSC funding was on the chopping block, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) made the difference as a powerful member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and the Committee on the Budget.

Among many other state supreme court justices, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht played a key role in persuading Texas members of Congress to support LSC funding.

6. Build a broad coalition: Hug the Bar
To expand, civil legal aid must be conjoined to the private bar. Ironically, two new requirements that Congress and LSC imposed on grantee programs during the early 1980s ultimately helped save the LSC’s funding and programs from the Reagan Administration.

During the early 1980s, Congress required that a majority of each local program’s board of directors be attorneys appointed by state or local bar associations. In addition, LSC President Dan Bradley, with the support of the ABA, required each program to devote an amount of funds equal to 10 percent (later 12.5 percent) of its LSC grant award to private attorney involvement (PAI). This PAI money could fund delivery of legal services to the poor on either a pro bono or a low-fee compensated basis. Many in the legal services community feared the loss of both independence and money and opposed these requirements. So there was a huge debate.

The new requirements helped the private attorneys who participated as board members or PAI attorneys to appreciate the difficulties of serving poor clients with severely limited resources. These private attorneys began to respect legal services attorneys as peers. This strengthened the role of the organized bar as a champion of federally funded legal services.

This was crucial during the battles in the 1980s to defend LSC’s funding and programs from the Reagan Administration. Champions of LSC included the ABA, acting through SCLAID, and state and local bar associations. The new entity Bar Leaders for Preservation of Legal Services emerged. All of these bar organizations worked with NLADA, PAG, and my organization the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). We effectively advocated before Congress to prevent implementation of many of the hostile policies that the LSC Board and staff had attempted to impose.

Today the Bar views legal aid as central to its work. Many legal aid directors are very active in the bar and play prominent roles. For example, my good friend Jon Asher is one of the Colorado Bar delegates to the ABA House of Delegates and has been active numerous other ABA committees.

7. Survive: Get the best deal you can and stay alive
Starting in 1995, the new House majority under Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) sought to replace LSC with a system of limited block grants to the states that would severely restrict the kind of services for which the funds could be used. The House of Representatives adopted a “glide path to elimination” budget plan. It assumed that LSC’s funding would be cut by one-third in FY1996, another third in FY1997, and completely eliminated thereafter.

Ultimately a bipartisan majority in the Congress, led by Domenici, was able to rescue LSC, but only with new restrictions on all activities of all LSC grantees. I was there and lobbied hard. Some in the legal aid movement who were not active with Congress thought we were selling out. They wanted us to hold out for funding without new restrictions. That was a fantasy. There was no negotiation. The only way to prevent LSC funding from being block granted and phased out was to accept new restrictions imposed by our allies.

When the new restrictions became law and regulation, some in the legal aid movement thought the sky was falling. Instead we calmed down and studied the regs. In 1997, I and Linda Perle wrote a paper “What Can and Cannot Be Done”. It concluded that the letter of the law and regulations still permitted LSC grantees to do “over 95% of the work done in legal services in 1995” and bring “over 98% of the cases brought to court in 1995”. To its credit, MIE under Patti Pap‘s leadership then ran four regional conferences in a massive effort to educate legal aid project directors on what was permissible. Yes, painful changes were necessary. But the world did not end. We survived to fight another day.

8. Adapt and be flexible
We cannot just do what we have done before and assume everything will continue. We must change structures and delivery systems in response to changes in law, technology, court operations, and political climate. Here are two examples.

First, after enactment of the 1990s restrictions, organizations such as Community Legal Services (CLS) of Philadelphia made the agonizing choice to cut themselves in two. CLS lost all LSC funding but was free to continue its systems change work. Meanwhile, some staff and a new board spun off and became Philadelphia Legal Assistance, the new LSC grantee. For the organizations that surrendered LSC funding, it was scary. Many new executive directors at the time, such as Catherine Carr of CLS, feared they might fail as managers even as they bravely leapt into the unknown. Fortunately, many organizations that lost LSC funding developed new funding sources and developed new social justice programs.

Second, LSC’s Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program has spurred enormous innovation. Richard Zorza and others developed ideas for how to apply technology to legal services. Under LSC President John McKay, LSC worked with Congress to create and fund the TIG program starting in 2000. It has endured more than 20 years.

9. Build a broad coalition: Tell your story
Nobody has done this better than Voices for Civil Justice under the leadership of Martha Bergmark starting in 2013. Voices the organization closed its doors in late 2022 but the website remains active: https://voicesforciviljustice.org. I hope another national organization will pick up this torch and tell the story of civil legal aid. Meanwhile, state and local organizations must improve their ability to tell their stories though both the traditional media and social media.

10. Be effective for your clients
You and your organization should always remember that it’s not about you. It’s about your clients. The LSC has has survived because its grantees have been effective at resolving the legal problems and improving the lives of poor and marginalized people. That effectiveness has included winning major state and US Supreme Court victories. Effectiveness has won the LSC support in the Bar, the courts, and Congress.

***
Alan Houseman is President of Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library (CNEJL), a 501(c)(3) organization that preserves the history of legal aid. He was a Reggie in Detroit in 1968-69. Founded and directed Michigan Legal Services (1969-1976). Founder and director of the Research Institute at the LSC (1976-1981). Director of Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) (1981-2013). He was one of two lobbyists helping to procure enactment of the LSC Act and was involved in its only reauthorization in 1977. He represented legal services programs on regulations and policy before the LSC Board (1982-2012). He also represented legal services programs before Congress during 1982-2012 (along with Julie Clark, Don Saunders, and Linda Perle). He staffed the LSC transition team for the President Clinton in 1992 and directed the LSC transition team for President Obama in 2008. He was active at the ABA helping to shape the legal needs study, Ten Principles of Civil Legal Aid, and other initiatives of SCLAID. He has written widely on legal services and poverty law.


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