The Legal Aid Society
The Legal Aid Society
Incorporated: 1876 as Der Deutsche-Rechts-Schutz-Verein
Revenues: $134.4 million (2001)
NAIC: 541110 Offices of Lawyers
The Legal Aid Society of New York City is the United States’ oldest and largest provider of legal services to people unable to afford an attorney. With a roster of 900 lawyers, backed by a support staff of 800 and an annual budget of approximately $125 million, the Society is the largest legal employer in the New York metropolitan area. It handles some 300,000 cases each year that are divided into three areas: civil, criminal, and juvenile rights. The civil practice, the Society’s oldest endeavor, is funded by private donations and government grants and concentrates on such areas as family law, consumer law, immigration issues, and the rights of the homeless. The Society’s criminal practice is New York City’s primary provider of indigent defense services. It is funded by a combination of city, state, and federal funds, as is the juvenile rights practice, which is involved in the representation of 90 percent of all children who appear before the city’s family court. The Society, according to Crain’s New York Business, is among the top 25 largest non-profit corporations in the city in terms of operating budget.
Legal Aid Society Established by German Immigrants
The Legal Aid Society was organized by German immigrants who, because they had a limited facility with the English language and were unfamiliar with American customs, were easily exploited. The German Society in New York City was already providing some legal services when, on March 8, 1876, it incorporated the predecessor to the Legal Aid Society, Der Deutsche-Rechts-Schutz-Verein, in the offices of its first president, Edward Salomon, a practicing attorney who also served as counsel for the Prussian Government. His fellow incorporates included merchants and importers as well as lawyers, all devoted to providing legal protection for German immigrants. At the time, some 25 years before the creation of Greater New York, the city was limited to the million people who lived on the island of Manhattan. Most of the immigration to this point originated from Ireland, but the number of transplanted Germans was on the rise. They, like the influx of Italians and other nationalities to follow in the years to come, would face even greater difficulties assimilating into American society because, unlike the Irish, English was not their first language.
The Society’s original charter limited aid to people of German birth, but Salomon had enough foresight to obtain the rights to the name “Legal Aid Society” well before non-Germans came within the organization’s purview. Around 1885, a “New York Legal Aid Society” began advertising its “free” services in the city’s German newspapers. Salomon investigated, concluded “that the affair was not in very clean hands,” and took the necessary steps to enjoin the use of “Legal Aid Society.” As a result, the use of “legal aid” would be reserved for the many non-profit organizations that would be established across the country in the years to come. America’s second legal aid society was established in Chicago in 1888 as the Ethical Culture Society, the first to offer legal assistance regardless of nationality, race, or sex. In 1889, Salomon was succeeded by patent attorney Arthur von Briesen, who during the first year of his presidency oversaw a change in the Society’s constitution that eliminated the restriction of clients to those of German heritage. In 1890, at his insistence, the organization cut its financial ties to The German Society, then in 1896 officially changed its name to The Legal Aid Society. Even with its previous subsidy, it had barely managed to scrape by and on several occasions came close to dissolving for lack of funds. In addition to small donations from individuals, the Society was supported by a 10 percent commission it charged on collecting money for clients, a practice begun in 1879. In 1896, a retainer fee of ten cents was initiated, subsequently raised to 25 cents in 1903, then 50 cents, although it was frequently waived. The Society also held fundraising events, in particular an annual opera benefit. Somehow it managed to hang on, but funding would remain a constant worry throughout the Society’s history.
Initially the Society concentrated on civil matters, although the founders clearly intended to handle criminal cases as well. Again it was the lack of money, which translated into the lack of staff, that forced the Society to limit its activities. Criminal cases were only accepted after receiving special permission from the law committee, president, or the vice-president of the organization. In its early years, Society lawyers mostly handled cases involving wages or rent disputes and attempts to defraud. By the end of the century, neighborhood branch offices were opened, spreading the work of the Society to the other boroughs of Greater New York. In 1900, a Seaman’s Branch was opened, which became instrumental in the elimination of the lucrative practice of shanghaiing sailors. Essentially, men in the waterfront areas were waylaid by the means of clubs or drugs and pressed into service on ships against their will. Society lawyers assigned to the Seaman’s Branch spent many nights on launches in New York harbor running down the “crimps” involved in this trade. As a result of these efforts, the Society was able to secure a conviction that set a precedent for law enforcement around the country and helped to make shanghaiing a Federal offense.
Just as its Seamen’s Branch championed the rights of sailors, the Society also began to support domestic workers, producing a pamphlet called “Domestic Employment” that laid out reasonable terms of employment for both servants and employers. Nevertheless, the Society was so deluged with cases involving the recovery of wages that by 1910 it was forced to limit its services to those servants who left their employment after giving reasonable notice. It was also during this period that the Society began to take on personal loan companies and furniture installment sellers. Many recent immigrants fell victim to the so-called installment game, buying goods on terms so restrictive that as soon as they missed a payment they were removed to the notorious Ludlow jail by complicit city marshals and held until family members were able to raise the necessary ransom. During this “War on the Sharks,” the Society also played an influential role in the passage of legislation to regulate interest rates that could be charged on small loans. Press recognition of the Society, which began with a 1906 article in the Ladies Home Journal, helped to spread the legal aid concept to other cities and led to the establishment of the National Alliance of Legal Aid Societies in 1912. Moreover, the Society was in the vanguard of promoting progressive ideals. In 1901, at a time when few women were members of the Bar, Rosalie Loew, after serving six years as a staff attorney, was named Attorney-in-Chief.
The Society During World War I
With Europe involved in the bloody conflict of World War I, Von Briesen, who retained sympathies to his native Germany, found it necessary to step down as the president of the Society. He was replaced in 1917 by the most distinguished man to ever hold the office: Charles Evans Hughes, a man who had already been elected to two terms as governor of New York, served as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, and ran for the presidency in 1916. After five years as president of the Society, Hughes resigned to become Secretary of State, then returned to the Supreme Court where he was named Chief Justice. His connection to the Society was instrumental in raising the profile of the organization, which led to significant growth during the 1920s. The Bar as well as the general public increased their contributions, which allowed the Society to expand its work on criminal cases. By the end of the decade it received its millionth application for aid.
The advent of the Depression brought a number of changes to the Society in the 1930s, although some were simply a tribute to its successes. The Seaman’s Branch lessened in importance, due in large part to legislation that the Society had championed. Caseloads were also reduced with the advent of the Workmen’s Compensation Bureau, the Small Claims Court, and the Age Claims Division of the State Labor Department. Nevertheless, financial constraints forced the Society to close the Brooklyn and Harlem branches in 1932, and the retainer was increased from 25 cents to 50 cents. The Depression also led to complaints from practicing attorneys who felt that the Society was depriving them of potential business. In better times, of course, they would never take on such small matters, but now the Society had to be more scrupulous about turning away clients who had even the slightest ability to pay.
During World War II, the workload of the Society was inflated by the influx of military-related cases. Not only draft matters were handled but also issues involving expeditious marriages during furloughs for servicemen as well as allowances, allotments, and insurance for relatives. After the war, the Society offered legal assistance to any veterans, regardless of their ability to pay, for 90 days after their discharge. Following the war, there was renewed interest in legal aid in America, with the number of organizations growing from 64 to 90 by the end of the decade. Much of the Society’s work now dealt with landlord and tenant cases due to a tight housing situation that resulted from building restrictions imposed during the war. Because the Society could only help the indigent, in 1948 it established Legal Referral Services, which connected clients with a marginal ability to pay, or those with unusual cases, to a list of volunteer lawyers who had been recruited by the bar association.
By providing counsel and assistance to those in need, the Society strives on a daily basis to honor its commitment to secure, through the law, the rights and the protection of the poor which should be afforded to all. In doing so, the Society helps to ensure that our civilization remains just in its treatment of all people.
Because contributions from both lawyers and the general public increased significantly after the war, by 1950 the Society was able to start reopening the branch offices closed during the Depression. Services in the civil practice were increased, but the Society was still unable to represent many criminal cases. This situation changed in the 1960s when the Society received a contract from the city of New York to provide legal representation to poor defendants, the result of the landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, which required states and municipalities to provide counsel to indigents involved in criminal prosecution. Before this change, such legal work for the indigent had been used by politicians as patronage, with the result that all too often defendants were actually deprived of representation. Fueled by city and state funding of its criminal practice, the Society grew in size. It was also during this period that the Juvenile Rights Division and the Prisoners Rights Project were added. To supplement the Society’s staff of lawyers, a formal internship program was established in 1967.
In 1975, Archibald Murray became attorney in chief and executive director of the Society, a post he held for 20 years. Born in Barbados he was the first black president of the New York State Bar Association and made a point of hiring more minority lawyers to the Society’s staff, increasing the level from three percent to 19 percent. To augment the civil practice, which lacked public financing, he turned to city law firms, convincing them to not only contribute money but also to perform free legal work for Society clients. In 1978, the Volunteer Division was created to facilitate a partnership with members of the private bar. At the end of his term, however, Murray saw the Society’s relationship with the city’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, turn contentious and seriously jeopardize the future of the organization.
Society Attorneys Strike in 1994
In October 1994, 919 staff attorneys, whose annual average salary was $45,000, went on strike against the Society, seeking a 4.5 percent raise in salary as well as parity in caseload with the district attorney’s office. After Rudolph Giuliani had taken office at the beginning of the year, the number of misdemeanor arrests increased by almost 30 percent over a similar period the year before. Most of these arrests were the result of his administration’s effort to attack “quality of life crimes” such as traffic-light squeegee men, subway panhandlers, graffiti artists, and street-corner prostitutes. The reasoning behind this effort was that by tolerating relatively petty transgressions, over the years the city had created an atmosphere in which more major crimes flourished. Although the strike was against the Society and not the city, and other work stoppages had recently occurred with legal aid workers making similar complaints in other municipalities, Mayor Giuliani responded with surprising ferocity. He not only gave 90 days notice that the city would cancel its contract with the Society, he also threatened to have the strikers fired and blacklisted from future city business if the Society did not accept an 18 percent cut in funding, increased workloads, and a no-strike agreement from the union. Because the city provided $79 million of the its $140 million budget, the Society faced immediate ruin. Ironically, just two weeks earlier, the mayor, displeased with the high costs of the Assigned Counsel Plan, had begun to shift some 13,000 cases to the Society.
After a four-day walkout, the attorneys, who agreed to a two percent annual bonus and arbitration over health care costs, returned to work, Albert somewhat shaken and demoralized. They had originally argued that their salary demands could be met by the Society making internal budget cuts and were clearly caught off guard by the mayor’s intervention. Norman Siegel, head of the New York affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, commented at the time, “My sense is that the lawyers became pawns in a much larger political and labor management scenario.” Some of the strikers maintained that Giuliani saw the lawyers as an easy target, a useful foil to intimidate city unions in future negotiations.
Whatever may have been Mayor Giuliani’s short-term goal, he continued to maintain an antagonistic attitude regarding the Society throughout the remainder of his time in office. He vowed to break the Society’s “monopoly” on indigent legal work by awarding some of it to other groups, such as bar associations. With its budget slashed, the Society hired a management consultant to streamline its operation, which according to critics had become top heavy. As a result, about half of the 212 supervising attorneys were eliminated, with some demoted and others simply laid off. The Society was also forced to change the way it handled arraignments. Instead of maintaining continuity of representation, with the same attorney working with a client throughout the court system, the Society now assigned a lawyer to screen out lesser matters at the arraignment stage in order to concentrate on more serious charges. Despite the cuts in city funding, however, the Society established a Capital Division in 1995 in order to address cases affected by the state’s new death penalty law.
- Der Deutsche-Rechts-Schutz-Verein incorporated to provide legal aid for German immigrants
- The organization officially changes its name to The Legal Aid Society.
- Rosalie Loew is named Attorney-in-Chief.
- Charles Evans Hughes is named president.
- Criminal practice added to the Society’s services.
- The Society is awarded a contract to represent indigent criminal defendants in New York City.
- Archibald Murray is named Attorney-in-Chief and executive director.
- The Society’s staff lawyers go on strike but return when Mayor Giuliani intervenes.
In September 2001, Mayor Giuliani, who was set to leave office at the end of the year because of term limits, prepared a parting shot in his feud with the Society. He terminated the automatic renewal of its city contract, forcing the Society to bid on contracts with each borough. The terrorist attacks of September 11, however, intervened, leaving the matter to be resolved by a new mayor. With its main office located near the World Trade Center, the Society was adversely affected by the events, cut off from its headquarters for several weeks, and forced to work out of temporary accommodations. Even as it recovered from these extraordinary circumstances, the Society added programs to deal with the effects of the terrorists attacks. Budget cuts and an increased caseload began to take its toll on the organization, so that by the time Michael Bloomberg took office as New York’s new mayor in 2002, the future of the Society was very much uncertain. Because the city, strapped for money after economic difficulties caused by September 11, would likely save money by investing in the Society, and a new administration presented a fresh start, circumstances seemed promising for a return to an atmosphere less hostile to legal aid in New York City.
Criminal Defense Division; Federal Defender Division; Juvenile Rights Division; Civil Division; Volunteer Division.
Hoffman, Jan, “A New Round for Legal Aid and Giuliani,” New York Times, October 20, 1994, p. 41.
——, “For Legal Aid and the City, Peace at Last,” New York Times, January 29, 1995, p. 33.
Rohde, David, “Legal Aid’s Last Challenge From an Old Adversary, Giuliani,” New York Times, September 9, 2001, p. 41.
Tweed, Harrison, The Legal Aid Society, New York City, 1987–1951, New York: The Legal Aid Society, 1954, 122 p.