My recollections of working for Neighborhood Legal Services in Washington, DC, in the mid 1960s

Below is an article written for the NEJl blog by Jonathan A. Weiss, the first “neighborhood lawyer” hired by the Ford Foundation-funded Neighborhood Legal Services Project in December, 1964.  NLSP was a pilot project serving several low income areas in Washington DC which later became the OEO funded legal services program in that city. Weiss spent the next four decades in legal services including stints as a managing attorney in the DC program, as a managing attorney at Mobilization for Youth and at the Center for Law and Social Policy and then executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly in New York City. Weiss has published articles on the practice and theory for legal services attorneys, including “The Law and the Poor,” Journal of Social Issues 26:3 (1970), Law of the Elderly (1977) and “Should the Government Fund Legal Services? If so, what should the Lawyers Do?” Journal of the Institute  for the Study of Legal Ethics 2 (1999): 401-409.

In the article below Weiss focuses on his early years as a pioneering legal services lawyer in the nation’s capital, when the goals and scope of the program were being worked out. 

Earl Johnson, Jr.

My recollections of working for Neighborhood Legal Services in Washington, DC, in the mid 1960s

By Jonathan Weiss

The earliest mention of legal services in my life was in conversations with Gary Bellow, in which we agreed that criminal law representation was not enough for poor people if they had to return to poverty, which had created the conditions of crime. Lawyers had to take on representation of the deprived and oppressed economically in order to make real social progress.

I also thought of legal services as an extension of the Civil Rights movement. Voting and education rights were also crucial, but if there continued to be economic disaster for those who faced discrimination, removing some of the discrimination would not be enough.

Through Gary I first met Ed Sparer, who was then running the legal services component of Mobilization for Youth in New York, and planning to establish the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law. (He offered me the deputy – and probably the one staff — position which I declined later). Gary moved on from Criminal Legal Aid to establish and essentially direct the D.C. United Planning organization which was to provide field offices with components to help people with housing, welfare, social work problems, and even domestic duties. In these field offices, there would also be a legal services office to work with these components. He persuaded Earl Johnson, Jr. to come to Washington, D.C. to run these legal services offices.

Earl interviewed me for a job in legal services. He asked me if I agreed with the Cahn article. I said I did not, for it seemed more of an imposition of an ideology on a community rather than representing members of the community. Earl agreed and that may have been one factor in his hiring me.

Headquarters were on 12th and U St. NW in the Negro Masonic Temple which was not used during the day. Earl asked me to write the basic articles on the ethical rules and limitations of legal services practice. Relying on National Brotherhood of Railroad Workers and NAACP v Button primarily I concluded that as long as there was a direct personal attorney client relationship with no economic preconditions and a social ideal, a structure could be provided to establish the network envisaged.

I then went to the office on 14th and Park Road, which was directed by an experienced and excellent lawyer, Gene Chase, with whom I worked closely. It became clear to me immediately that the clients that came in with grievances often did not know which ones had legal remedies – and that the major skill of a legal services lawyer was to find what was the legal issue with which he could help. Next, it was clear there were whole areas, where there were helpful, even dispositive, laws on the books (including the Constitution), but lawlessness in the poverty ghettos both in the criminal and civil field. It was also clear that poor people’s problems were often intertwined: a welfare demonstration might lead to an arrest, an eviction, loss of child, and then welfare itself. The Gordian knot had to be untied. (I was never aware of Legal Aid in D.C. except when I went to run the office at 14th and Clifton and have a legal aid lawyer assigned there, Marie Klooz).

Earl was initially concerned that not enough test cases or law reform cases were being generated. I told him that we were winning when we discovered the issues and some of the lawyers weren’t looking hard enough. (Years later when Gary Bellow went to California Rural Legal Assistance, he developed a list of 50 cases he would like to bring. I bet him if he reviewed the case files already open he would find them and he did.).

Meanwhile an education program had been set up, primarily by Robert Cipes, I believe, who had written Volumes 8 and 8A of the Federal Criminal Code commentary. Among the speakers was Herman Miller, a landlord’s lawyer, who was delighted to have us litigate against him because he then made more money than all the defaults he had taken at, I believe 50 cents each.

Important cases did start to emerge when there was no choice but to appeal or take affirmative action. Brian Olmsted helped by Bob Cipes and others brought the case which established the right to be free from retaliatory eviction (requiring a jury trial since facts were now central) so that a landlord could not evict a tenant for complaining about conditions to a government agency. The right of Juveniles to habeas corpus and bail was firmly established.

The rights of Juveniles at trials were expanded by the Court of Appeals. In a failure to move one case, the Court of Appeals held that a person wrongfully arrested had a right to swear at the policeman.

We also started handling Social Security disability cases. I think no one had ever appealed before because they had to find special officers and space. We started winning a number and now, of course, there is a whole segment of the bar that specializes in this area.

We did the same in Unemployment.

Tom Willging joined my office, fresh out of law school, but not able to practice because he was not yet admitted to the Bar. As a result, I took on a large number of consumer cases and he drafted extensive and exhaustive discovery, particularly interrogatories which allowed us to end the case with no payment for our client.

Later the National Center for Education in Law and Poverty and the Center on Social Welfare Justice and Law produced material about how to interview, disseminated form annotated pleadings, and discovery, so that these could be used nationwide. They had their genesis in Neighborhood Legal Services.

The most striking aspect was the not just the entanglement of problems, the range of issues never raised, the lawlessness, but how many people there were who needed help. (Getting referral from the Neighborhood Centers, and having them help us, mitigated this factor). One month I did 100 intakes. So I took a year off on a Fulbright in Italy before returning to New York, to work at both Mobilization of Youth Legal Services and the Center of Social Welfare Policy and Law where I started Legal Services for the Elderly which continued for over 35 years.

Related Resources:

The NEJL collections includes some of Jonathan Weiss’s papers, including a full set of progress reports on legal services for the elderly, from 1972 until 2002. The Jonathan Weiss papers also include a full bibliography of his writings.

The NEJL also holds the papers of Jean and Edgar Cahn related to legal services. Transcripts and recordings of oral history interviews with Edgar Cahn, Justice Earl Johnson, Jr. , and Gary Bellow are also part of the NEJL collections.

Brian Gilmore, “Love you Madly: The Life and Times of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program  of the District of Columbia, “ 10 D.C. Law Review 69 (2007).

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