This article offers a counter narrative to the conventional description of legal aid in the United States. By offering this counter narrative it focuses us on certain enduring difficulties that any legal aid or legal services program has to face if it wants to engage in reform efforts: problems of funding and problems of the social and historical context. Conventional wisdom has it that legal aid until the 1960s was largely devoted to individual cases and that it was not until the advent of federally-funded legal services that law reform and social change became part of the delivery of legal services to the poor. Contrary to this conventional wisdom, there is another story. As this article demonstrates, there was an aspiration toward using the legal system aggressively to achieve social justice during the period 1900 to roughly 1920. This changed during the 1920s.
In presenting this counter-narrative, this article first looks at legal aid during the period 1900-1920 to support the thesis that during this period legal aid aspired toward using the legal system to achieve social justice. It then looks at that next decade, the 1920s, and describes how legal aid became the kind of organization that conventional wisdom describes: a legal aid organization devoted almost solely to individual cases with a large focus on domestic relations practice and abandoning any attempt to use law to achieve social justice. More importantly, this article explores why this change to a more traditional type of legal aid occurred. The most interesting theories blame Reginald Heber Smith and the American Bar Association. Smith is blamed because of his alleged emphasis on access to justice in a landmark study of legal aid called “Justice and the Poor” published in 1919. The ABA is blamed because of the alleged “takeover” of legal aid by the conservative bar in the 1920’s, enabled by the ABA’s establishment of a standing committee on legal aid. These theories, however, are too reductionist and overlook two more important explanations for this retreat from law reform: the need for funding and the social and historical context. These explanations are significant not only because they shed light on a neglected part of our past, but because they connect that past to issues that persist until today.
Mark Spiegel. "Legal Aid 1900 to 1930: What Happened to Law Reform?." DePaul Journal for Social Justice (Forthcoming) (2015).