Growth and Development

By 1968, 260 OEO programs were operating in every state except North Dakota, where the governor had vetoed the grants. The legal services budget grew slowly but steadily from the initial $25 million in 1966 to $71.5 million in 1972.

In 1967, OEO legal services’ second director, Earl Johnson, made a second fundamental policy decision that would also have long-term implications for the civil legal assistance program.

The local OEO-funded legal services programs were facing impossible demands from clients for services with inadequate resources to meet the need. In response to this growing problem, Johnson decided to require that programs set local priorities for the allocation of resources but established “law reform” for the poor as the chief goal of OEO legal services. He made clear that OEO would give priority in funding to proposals that focused on law reform.

In addition, Johnson wanted to create a cadre of legal services leaders who would then use peer pressure to encourage programs to provide high-quality legal services. In order to achieve this goal, OEO funded the Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship program to attract “the best and the brightest” young law graduates and young lawyers into OEO legal services. This program provided a summer of intensive training in various law reform issues, and then placed the “Reggies” in legal services programs throughout the country for one- or two-year tours of duty. Many of the Reggies became leaders in their local legal services communities, as well as on the national level. Others went on to become respected lawyers in private practice and academia, as well as important political leaders and well-known public figures.

Back-up centers

A large investment was also made in “back-up centers”—national legal advocacy centers, initially housed in law schools, that were organized around specific substantive areas (e.g., welfare or housing) or a particular group within the eligible client population (e.g., Native Americans or elderly). These centers co-counseled with, and provided substantive support for, local programs that were engaged in key test case litigation and representation before legislative and administrative bodies on behalf of eligible clients and groups, as well as engaging directly in advocacy in significant cases with national impact.

The back-up centers also provided research, analysis, and training to local legal services programs that were working on cases within the centers’ areas of expertise. These centers engaged in specialized representation and developed knowledge and expertise that were essential to the emergence of new areas of poverty law. They also provided leadership on key substantive issues and worked closely with the national poor people’s movements that had evolved during the early years of the legal services program (e.g., the National Welfare Rights Movement and the National Tenants Organization). The work of the back-up centers was memorialized in numerous national publications, including the Clearinghouse Review and The Poverty Law Reporter, which featured articles on poverty law developments and national training and technical assistance programs.

1968: OEO creates Project Advisory Group (PAG)

In 1968, OEO also created the Project Advisory Group (PAG) an association of the federally funded legal services programs. PAG was created to ensure that legal services project directors would have input into OEO decisions. Through its democratically elected leaders,  PAG helped create policies and positions for the legal services community and represented the interests of its member programs before Congress, OEO, and its successors for more than 30 years until it merged with NLADA in 1999.

1970: 5 elements of the legal services program

Thus, by 1970, the basic structure of the legal services program was in place. It was differentiated from traditional legal aid by five principal elements:

1) Responsibility to all poor people as a “client community” — The first element was the notion of responsibility to all poor people as a “client community.” Local legal services programs attempted to serve, as a whole, the community of poor people who resided in their geographic service area, not simply the individual clients who happened to be indigent and who sought assistance with their particular problems.

2) Emphasis on the right of clients to control decisions about the priorities — The second element was the emphasis on the right of clients to control decisions about the priorities that programs would pursue to address their  problems. The legal services program was a tool for poor people to use rather than simply an agency to provide services to those poor people who sought help.

3) Commitment to redress historic inadequacies in the enforcement of legal rights of poor people — The third element was a commitment to redress historic inadequacies in the enforcement of legal rights of poor people caused by lack of access to those institutions that were intended to protect those rights. Thus, “law reform” was a principal goal for the legal services program during the early years.

4) Responsiveness to legal need rather than to demand — The fourth element was responsiveness to legal need rather than to demand. Through community education, outreach efforts, and physical presence in the community, legal services programs were able to help clients identify critical needs, set priorities for the use of limited resources, and fashion appropriate legal responses, rather than simply respond to the demands of those individuals who happened to walk into the office.

5) Full range of service and advocacy tools to the low-income community — The fifth and final element was that legal services programs were designed to provide a full range of service and advocacy tools to the low-income community. Thus, poor people were to have at their disposal as full a range of services and advocacy tools as affluent clients who hired private attorneys.