“America is the greatest, freest, and most decent society in existence. It is an oasis of goodness in a desert of cynicism and barbarism.”—Dinesh D’Souza

Writing in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, the India-born author penned a forceful tribute to our national virtues in his book, “What’s So Great About America.” What makes our country so great? Near the top of the list are our common commitment to basic fairness for everyone, our abiding respect for the rule of law, and our earnest belief in justice for all.

Of course, if you are poor in this country, securing meaningful access to the justice system can be an arduous uphill trek. That’s why the Legal Services Corporation matters. LSC was founded in 1974 on the bipartisan belief that justice not be reserved solely for those who can afford to hire a lawyer. For three decades, we have been struggling right alongside our clients, forging ahead through political sandstorms to build a more just society through the provision of free civil legal assistance to the poor.

As LSC celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, we are proud to measure our success by the tens of millions of low-income Americans who have received justice as a result of our unrelenting climb toward a more perfect union.

The First Steps

1974: President Nixon signs the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974, affirming that “there is a need to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.” The bill represents a compromise between supporters and opponents of the Office of Economic Opportunity’s legal services program. Its passage establishes the first independent, national nonprofit organization charged with overseeing America’s commitment to civil justice for all.

1975: President Ford appoints the first LSC Board of Directors, chaired by Roger Cramton, Dean of Cornell Law School. After Senate confirmation, the Board is sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, who a decade earlier as President of the American Bar Association led the ABA in endorsing legal services. More than 29 million Americans live in poverty as the first LSC Board takes the reins of the national legal services program. LSC reviews its funding and the service capabilities of local programs and finds that more than 40 percent of the nation’s poor live in areas that are not served by any legal aid program.

1976: The Board hires LSC’s first President, Thomas Ehrlich, former Dean of Stanford Law School. LSC establishes its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and opens nine regional offices across the country.

1977: The LSC Act is reauthorized and includes several changes that provide LSC with greater flexibility to fund support activities. The Carter Administration appoints new members to the LSC Board, including former University of Arkansas clinical law professor Hillary Rodham and former legal services lawyer (and future U.S. Secretary of Commerce) Mickey Kantor. LSC receives a congressional appropriation of $125 million.

1978: Rodham is elected LSC Chairwoman by her fellow Board members.

1979: The Board names longtime advocate Dan Bradley, the former director of the Atlanta Regional Office, to replace Ehrlich as LSC President.

1980: LSC releases the results of a National Delivery System Study confirming that the staff-attorney model of delivering legal services to the poor is more effective and economical than alternative methods, such as subsidizing private attorneys. LSC undergoes its period of greatest expansion as Congress allocates a record $300 million to the Corporation, allowing the country to briefly achieve “minimum access levels” of two legal services lawyers for every 10,000 eligible poor people. This high-water budget mark in LSC’s history funds 1,450 local offices delivering legal  >>

assistance through approximately 6,200 attorneys and 2,800 paralegals. For the first time, every U.S. county is served by an LSC-funded program. However, Congress begins restricting the use of federal legal aid dollars by attaching a rider to LSC’s appropriations bill prohibiting the representation of certain aliens.

Laying Bricks

1981: President Reagan is sworn into office and calls for LSC to be disbanded altogether and replaced with a system of block grants and law-school clinics. ABA President William Reece Smith leads a mini-march on Washington to rescue LSC; more than 200 prominent lawyers come to the capital to make the case for continued funding of LSC. They hold press conferences, testify before congressional committees, and convene meetings with their Senators and Representatives to highlight the importance of a federal commitment to equal justice. LSC issues a guideline directing its grantees to use a portion of their funds to promote private attorney involvement in the delivery of legal services to eligible clients.

Once Congress goes into recess, President Reagan begins to replace LSC Board members with appointees not approved by the Senate. For much of the Reagan Presidency, LSC is governed by a Board that consists of recess appointees and holdover members. Institutionally, the Corporation becomes increasingly adversarial to its programs, actively lobbying Congress against further LSC appropriations. Board member Thomas Smegal, a Republican, emerges as a strong but isolated voice in support of adherence to LSC’s statutory purpose.

1982: Congress rejects President Reagan’s proposal to eliminate LSC but cuts the Corporation’s budget by 25 percent, forcing the closure of 285 offices and the layoffs of 1,793 attorneys and 952 paralegals. Congress enacts restrictions on the use of LSC funds for lobbying and rule-making, expands the restriction against representation of aliens, and makes it harder to file class actions.

1985: LSC adopts a formal regulation mandating private attorney involvement. The regulation, still in place today, requires that recipients of LSC funds apply an amount equal to at least 12.5 percent of their LSC field grant toward efforts to enlist private attorneys willing to provide services to the poor. The requirement ultimately helps more lawyers appreciate the plight of poor people unable to access the justice system and strengthens the role of the organized bar as a champion of legal services. 

1986: The ABA promulgates Standards for Providers of Civil Legal Services to the Poor, detailing legal services programs’ responsibility for supervision of legal work, case reviews, evaluation, and other methods of promoting and  >>

ensuring high-quality representation.

1987: Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH), a faithful champion of legal services who blocked harmful LSC Board actions throughout the 1980s, says during a congressional floor debate, “I do not trust the Board of the Legal Services Corporation farther than I can throw the Capitol.”

1988: LSC President John Bayly resigns under pressure after spending his year-and-a-half term defying Board directives to undermine LSC’s statutorily defined mission. Congress requires LSC to establish an independent Office of the Inspector General.

Scaling Higher

1989: The election of George H.W. Bush ends the overt hostility toward LSC.

1990: Under the leadership of new Board Chairman George Wittgraff and President John O’Hara, LSC begins to take a more conciliatory stance toward its grantees and the private bar. The Administration stops trying to cut LSC’s budget and instead calls for level funding.

1992: In the final year of President Bush’s term in office, LSC receives its largest funding increase in nearly a decade, as Congress allocates $350 million for FY02.

1993: President Clinton’s election ushers in an era of hopefulness. Former LSC Board members F. William McCalpin and Thomas Smegal return to guide the Corporation, and New Jersey attorney Douglas Eakeley is elected LSC Chairman. The Clinton appointees are uniformly supportive of a strong federal role in equal justice efforts and go on to become the longest-serving Board of Directors in LSC’s history.

1994: An ABA survey finds that only 20 percent of eligible Americans are able to avail themselves of legal services. Congress approves a record $400 million for LSC in FY94 and FY95. LSC overhauls its compliance system. The hiring of prominent New York City attorney Alex Forger brings heightened stature to the LSC Presidency.

1995: The promising growth of the Clinton era is squelched. Led by new Speaker Newt Gingrich and Budget Chairman John Kasich, the House of Representatives adopts a budget plan that seeks to cut LSC funding by one-third in 1996, another one-third in 1997, and to zero in 1998. LSC begins serious reform efforts in anticipation of a funding calamity. The State Planning Initiative encourages federal legal aid grantees to embrace and promote modern intake systems, local resource development efforts, increased access to legal self-help information, greater engagement of pro bono attorneys, enhanced collaboration with the private bar,
and the use of technology to  >>

reach more clients.

Bridge to the 21st Century (1996-2004)

1996: LSC funding is reduced by a massive $122 million, and wide-ranging restrictions on LSC programs are imposed by Congress, including bans on representing prisoners and most aliens, class action lawsuits, welfare reform advocacy, most affirmative lobbying and rule-making, and the collection of attorney’s fees. The LSC-funded attorney workforce is reduced by approximately 900, and some 300 legal aid offices are forced to close. Congress mandates that LSC begin awarding grants on a competitive basis, ending presumptive refunding of grantees. The restrictions and budget cuts represent a political compromise; future efforts to eliminate LSC gain little traction.

1997: Seattle attorney John McKay is named LSC President. He says, “Taken as a whole, the restrictions on the types of cases LSC programs are allowed to handle convey a strong congressional message: Federally funded legal services should focus on individual case representation by providing access to the justice system on a case-by-case basis.”

1998: McKay mandates that all LSC grantees take part in State Planning processes as a condition of continued federal funding. Programs are required to consider whether service areas are optimally configured.

2000: Congress supports a promising new effort called the Technology Initiative Grant program, earmarking a portion of LSC funds to support a range of promising new technologies with the potential to reach many more low-income clients. Statewide legal services websites, computerized self-help systems, online court forms, and sophisticated case management software are among the new innovations pioneered by LSC-funded providers.

2001: LSC’s funding is increased by $25 million to $329 million for FY01. President George W. Bush takes office and declares himself a supporter of federally funded legal services.

2003: A new LSC Board is appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate. The new Board members are strongly supportive of the Corporation’s mission and elect Atlanta attorney Frank Strickland as LSC Chairman. Newly tabulated U.S. Census figures show that more than 45.2 million Americans are eligible for LSC-funded assistance.

2004: Having reduced the number of federal grantees from 325 (in 1995) to 143, LSC ends its emphasis on service area reconfiguration. Helaine Barnett, a 37-year veteran of The Legal Aid Society of New York City, is named the Corporation’s 18th President and embarks on a yearlong examination of how best to deliver high-quality legal assistance to clients.

Source: Center For Law and Social Policy, Alan W. Houseman and Linda E. Perle, (“Securing Equal Justice For All: A Brief History of Civil Legal Assistance in the United States”), November 2003 Illustration: Big Sesh Studios


Fall 2004
Vol. 3 No. 3