The American Bar Association’s initial involvement

Carnegie Foundation funds Reginald Heber Smith to write book “Justice and the Poor”

In 1919, Reginald Heber Smith, a young Harvard Law School graduate who had become Director of the Boston Legal Aid Society, received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to
research the current legal system and its effect on the poor. Smith wrote Justice and the Poor, a book that challenged the legal profession to ensure 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.”

ABA’s 1920 annual meeting establishes standing committee

The American Bar Association (ABA) responded to Smith’s call in 1920 by devoting a section of its 43rd annual meeting to legal aid and by creating the Standing Committee on Legal Aid, later changed to the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID), to ensure continued ABA involvement in the delivery of legal assistance to the poor. Many state and local bars responded by sponsoring new legal aid programs.

Modest benefits

However, the ABA initiative and the bar programs made only modest headway in achieving the goal of equal access to justice. In part, because of inadequate resources and
the impossibly large number of eligible clients, legal aid programs generally gave only perfunctory service to a high volume of clients. Legal aid lawyers and volunteers rarely went to court for their clients. Appeals on behalf of legal aid clients were virtually nonexistent. No one providing legal aid contemplated using administrative representation, lobbying, or community legal education to remedy clients’ problems. As a result, the legal aid program provided little real benefit to most of the individual clients it served and had no lasting effect on the client population as a whole.

Most of what we know today as poverty law and law reform (e.g., welfare law, housing law, consumer law, and health law) did not exist, even in concept, in the early days of legal aid.