Early programs of Legal Aid
Civil legal assistance for poor people in the United States began in 1876, when the German Society of New York founded an organization to protect recent German immigrants from exploitation. The agency's protection was subsequently extended to others, and in 1890 it became the Legal Aid Society of New York. In 1888, the Ethical Culture Society of Chicago established the Bureau of Justice, the first agency to offer legal assistance to individuals regardless of nationality, race, or sex. Other municipalities followed suit, and in the first decades of the twentieth century most major cities had fledgling legal aid offices.
The concept of free legal assistance for the poor was promoted by the publication in 1919 of Reginald Heber Smith's Justice and the Poor. Smith challenged the legal profession to consider it an obligation to see 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."
Smith's book had a major impact on the legal profession. In the early 1920s, the American Bar Association created the Special Committee on Legal Aid Work, and recommended that every bar association create such a committee. By the middle of the twentieth century, virtually every major metropolitan area had some kind of legal aid program. Some were part of bar associations and relied primarily on the donated time of lawyers. Others were run by law schools, social agencies or municipalities and had paid staff. Some were private, nonprofit corporations.
This patchwork system of legal aid fell far short of meeting the legal needs of poor people. It has been estimated that it reached less than one percent of those in need. Many areas of the country had no program at all. Where legal aid existed, its resources were stretched so thin that services were very limited and usually perfunctory. Legal assistance was viewed as a form of charity, and clients deemed not to be among the "deserving poor" were turned away. Services were provided on a purely individual basis, with no effort to address the fundamental problems of poor people.
In the early 1960s a new model for legal services emerged. Foundations, particularly the Ford Foundation, began to fund legal services programs located in multi-service social agencies, based on a philosophy that legal services should be a component of an overall anti-poverty effort. Mobilization for Youth in New York, Action for Boston Community Development, the Legal Assistance Association in New Haven, and the United Planning Organization in Washington were among the earliest legal services programs of this type.
In 1964, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare held a conference on the Extension of Legal Services to the Poor. Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach set the tone for the conference. While acknowledging the long and devoted service of legal aid societies, he called for "new techniques, new services, and new forms of intra-professional cooperation . . . to analyze the rights of welfare recipients, of installment purchasers, of people affected by slum housing, crime and despair. "There are signs, too," he noted, "that a new breed of lawyers is emerging, dedicated to using the law as an instrument of orderly and constructive social change."