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“[E]veryone should get to know the history of a place.” 

– Virginia Community Voice Blueprint

Our friends at Virginia Community Voice recommend looking back at least 50 years to truly understand a community, neighborhood, or issue.  

So that’s where this series starts: a quick trip back in time to look at the history of legal aid in order to understand its future. And because the history of legal aid is an American history, and structural racism is a founding principle of America, the story of legal aid is also a story of how structural racism has operated in the evolution of legal aid over time. 

Legal Aid in the Reconstruction Era

  • The concept of legal aid goes back to at least the Reconstruction Era. Women’s societies, abolitionist groups, and the Freedmen’s Bureau organized not just to provide services but also to supervise labor contracts between planters and freedpeople, legalize marriages entered into during slavery, help Black soldiers obtain back pay, and more.
  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s, formal legal aid societies were founded to assist in the so-called “Americanization” of what the legal profession at the time characterized as poor, uneducated, ethnic white immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Around the same time, Black, Asian, and Latinx communities were formalizing mutual aid connections into societies that provided both social services and legal advocacy. Some examples include the NAACP, the Chinese Guild, and La Liga Protectura Latina.

Legal Aid During Massive Resistance

  • In Virginia, in the 1950s and 60s, fears that the NAACP would partner with legal aid societies to file desegregation lawsuits prompted greater regulation, including requirements that attorneys appointed by local bar associations comprise the majority share of legal aid board seats. A version of this rule remains in place for federally funded legal aids, as well as a prohibition on using federal funds to file desegregation lawsuits.

The Nationwide Legal Services Program

  • In the early 1960s, Jean and Edgar Cahn wrote and circulated a paper proposing a nationwide legal services program, in which “corporate lawyers for the poor” would represent individuals and provide comprehensive legal services to community groups in their efforts to challenge systems that oppressed them.
  • When the idea was adopted by the Johnson administration as part of its War on Poverty, Jean Cahn—a Black woman lawyer from Baltimore—went to work for Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Her first task: wearing down the fierce opposition of the American Bar Association, then represented by a Virginia lawyer, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. In Jean Cahn’s words in her letter endorsing Lewis Powell for a U.S. Supreme Court seat:

“Today almost 7 years later, it is difficult to communicate the atmosphere of suspicion, caution and outright distrust which surrounded those first exploratory talks. The legal profession was suspicious of the OEO, and OEO was suspicious of the organized bar. The distance to be bridged could hardly have been cast more symbolically than to ask a white lawyer from the ranks of Southern aristocracy leading the then lily-white ABA and a black woman lawyer representing the “feds” to hammer out a relationship of trust and cooperation.”

  • But she did. Over the course of just a few months, Jean negotiated directly with Powell, even talking with him for 8 hours straight in one sitting, until Jean not only overcame ABA opposition to the National Legal Services Program, but persuaded the ABA to positively endorse it in exchange for seats on the National Advisory Council.

Founding of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Legal Aid Society

  • As federal funding became available for the first time, legal aids popped up all over the country, and, in 1967, law students studying at the University of Virginia School of Law founded the Charlottesville-Albemarle Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CALAS). Over the next several decades, CALAS formed partnerships with local attorneys to provide pro bono legal services and added paid staff.

Political Resistance to Antipoverty Efforts

  • But as legal aids all over the country began to enforce labor laws on behalf of marginalized populations and to challenge arbitrary cuts to public benefits, the Nixon and Reagan administrations began a campaign to restrict who could receive services (e.g., undocumented immigrants and people who are incarcerated), the kinds of cases that could brought (e.g., abortion, desegregation), as well as systemic reform activities (such as lobbying, filing class actions, and organizing), culminating in 1996 when Congress enacted severe funding cuts and imposed a super-restriction on federal funding, meaning that any program that received a penny of federal legal services funding had to abide by all the federal restrictions even with its private funding. Hundreds of legal aid offices closed, hundreds more consolidated, and the national support infrastructure was completely decimated.

Legal Aid Justice Center Rejects Federal Funding

  • Rather than operate under restrictions that made it impossible to fulfill its mission, CALAS rejected federal funding and created Piedmont Legal Services to be the LSC-funded program. This process was called “twinning,” a way of ensuring that low-income communities retained access to the full spectrum of legal services by creating two legal aid programs serving the same geographic area. Piedmont would later merge with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, and CALAS would later be renamed the Legal Aid Justice Center.
  • The Legal Aid Justice Center made a choice to reject federal legal services dollars because all people need and deserve access to legal services regardless of immigration or incarceration status, and because all of our clients—low-income individuals and community groups—need and deserve the same level of service that wealthy clients get from private law firms. Wealthy individuals and large corporations can hire a law firm not just to defend them in court, but also to handle their public relations, lobby the Virginia General Assembly and local governing bodies, and organize with others to influence regulatory processes—in other words, to build the legal frameworks that help them build and maintain power.

Commitment to Combining Direct Advocacy with Systemic Reform

  • The original vision for legal aid—the vision of both Jean Cahn and those early mutual aid societies—was to combine tenacious advocacy for individuals with bold advocacy for systemic reform, ultimately to shake up the status quo and build power for low-income communities to make the rules we live by. At the Legal Aid Justice Center, we work every day to live up to that original vision.
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