1865-1960s: Pioneering efforts and expansion

Prior to sustained, institutionalized efforts to provide legal aid to the poor, organizations and individual lawyers provided legal assistance to those who could not afford an attorney. The Freedman’s Bureau (1865-1872) provided legal assistance in civil cases, such as debt collection, domestic violence, divorces, and labor contracts. Nineteenth-century women’s clubs and settlement houses developed a holistic approach to legal assistance for working women. For example, in Chicago, the Protective Agency for Women and Children (PAWC) pioneered an especially expansive model of legal aid. Like its counterparts in other cities, PAWC handled wage claims, but it also helped women with a range of other issues: domestic violence, sexual assault, household debt, spousal abandonment, and even, although only in extreme circumstances, divorce.

German Immigrants’ Society (predecessor to the Legal Aid Society of New York)

Sustained efforts to provide civil legal assistance for poor people in the United States began in New York City in 1876 with the founding of the German Immigrants’ Society, the predecessor to the Legal Aid Society of New York. In 1889 the Society’s outreach was extended to all low-income New York residents, and its role expanded from serving
individual clients to engaging in legislative advocacy. Its once-narrow focus grew into a new mission: to promote measures for the protection of all individual poor people.

Heterogeneous expansion

Over the years, the legal aid movement caught on and expanded into many urban areas. Between 1920 and 1930, 30 new legal aid organizations were created. Annual caseloads
increased from 171,000 in 1920 to 307,000 in 1932. By 1965, virtually every major city in the United States had some kind of legal aid program, and the 236 legal aid organizations employed more than 400 full-time lawyers with an aggregate budget of over $5 million.

The only national legal aid structure that existed prior to the 1960s was the National Alliance of Legal Aid Societies (predecessor to the National Legal Aid and Defender
Association [NLADA]), which was founded in 1911. Despite the existence of this association, most programs operated in isolation from their counterparts in other
jurisdictions. With no national program or commonly accepted standards or models, the legal aid world was very heterogeneous. Many legal aid programs were free-standing
private corporations with paid staff; others were run as committees of bar associations, relying primarily on private lawyers who donated their time. Still others were units of municipal governments or divisions of social service agencies, and others were run by law schools.

Inadequate resources, limited service, and underserved areas

Regardless of the structure, these programs shared many common characteristics. First and foremost, no legal aid program had adequate resources. It has been estimated that
during its early years, legal aid reached less than 1 percent of those in need.

Many areas of the country had no legal aid at all, and those legal aid programs that did exist were woefully underfunded. For example, in 1963, the legal aid program that served the city of Los Angeles had annual funding of approximately $120,000 to serve more than 450,000 poor people. In that year, the national ratio of legal aid lawyers to eligible persons was 1 to 120,000. In addition, most legal aid programs only provided services in a limited range of cases and only to those clients who were thought to be among the “deserving poor” (i.e., those who were facing legal problems through no fault of their own).