Legal Aid Bureau turns 90

BY JILL TAUBER

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Last Wednesday, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau celebrated the 90th anniversary of its incorporation, another milestone in the long history of this unique student-run organization. The Bureau was established on March 3, 1913 and chartered as a Massachusetts charitable corporation the following year. It is one of the oldest student-governed legal services offices in the country.

On the day of its incorporation, Bureau members immediately went to work to further the institutional mission of providing services to those who “by reason of financial embarrassment or social position or for any other reason [that] may appear worthy thereof” could not afford legal assistance. Despite its youth in the early 1920s, Reginald Heber Smith, the noted legal services pioneer, had high praise for the Bureau, describing it as “the only law school organization of its type in the country which has justified its existence by serious work and substantial achievements.”

The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau currently consists of forty-two second and third year law students who practice as student attorneys, providing free legal services to low-income people in Middlesex and Suffolk counties. Bureau members work on a broad range of legal issues, including housing, domestic relations, and public benefits law. Bureau members are selected through a competitive application process during their first year of law school and make a two-year commitment to the organization.

This commitment, spanning the remainder of their law school careers, not only gives individual Bureau members unparalleled exposure to what it means to actually be a lawyer, but collectively, it gives them insight into how to run a legal services practice. With the help of the managing attorney, administrative director, and clinical instructors, the student attorneys manage every facet of the Bureau, from answering the phones on intake to deciding what cases to accept. This student autonomy has kept the Bureau thriving for the past ninety years.

Bureau student attorneys are authorized to practice under Rule 3:03 of Massachusetts law. Prior to the adoption of this rule in 1975, the legality of their practice was uncertain and subsequently caused much instability in the Bureau. As a result, the Bureau voted to cease operation on October 8, 1935. Dean Roscoe Pound labeled the Bureau’s closure as “perhaps the most serious event of the past school year.” This concern was not limited to the Harvard Law School community-The Boston Herald urged the General Court to “enable the Bureau to resume its useful work.” Aided by this display of public support for the Bureau, the student attorneys reopened the Bureau doors on March 8, 1937.

Perhaps no one knows the ins and outs of the Bureau better than the student presidents, who have presided over the Bureau throughout the years to ensure that it continues to provide excellent legal representation while giving its membership invaluable litigation experience and the opportunity to develop professional skills. Current Bureau President, Charlotte Sanders, was drawn to the Bureau because it provided her with the chance to jump start her career in legal services. In the Bureau, Sander states, “I saw an opportunity to make a positive difference in another person’s life, whether it be defending a tenant in an eviction proceeding, arguing before an administrative law judge to preserve a client’s disability benefits, or representing a victim of domestic violence in a divorce case against her abuser. In addition to exposure to this very difficult yet rewarding work, the Bureau has introduced me to some of the most talented, committed people I have ever met, whose hard work is what makes the Bureau as good as it is, and what makes me so honored and excited to be President.”

This high esteem for the Bureau is not unique to the current President. Former Bureau President Deval Patrick (1981-82), who went on to become the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Justice and is currently the Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of The Coca-Cola Company, had this to say about the Bureau.

Not many law students, even at the best law schools, have an opportunity like what the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau provides its members. Through a two-year commitment to the Bureau, students learn what it really means to practice law. Bureau members learn that to serve their clients-to help solve real problems in real people’s lives-is rarely about the facts in isolation or the law in abstraction. Rather, it is about appreciating, respecting and learning to navigate the full range and frequent collision of human personality within a highly structured, fundamentally backward-looking, occasionally sublime system.

While the Bureau Presidents work tirelessly during their tenure to maintain the Bureau’s high quality of legal practice and legal education, perhaps no one better encapsulates the heart of Harvard Legal Aid Bureau than former Administrative Director, Betty Allebach. Betty retired two years ago, after keeping the Bureau running for forty years. Former Bureau members maintain that “[t]he importance of Betty Allebach can never be overestimated.” One alumnus praised her as “the embodiment of institutional continuity” and another proposed that she “be canonized” for her crucial role in the functioning of the Bureau. Susana Arteta, the Bureau’s new Administrative Director, Rick Glassman, the Managing Attorney, and the staff of Clinical Instructors now fill the gap that Betty left with great energy and commitment to the Bureau’s students and clients.

Like other law school clinical programs, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau allows students to gain the “hands-on” experience that is often lacking in the classroom setting. Other clinical programs offer similar opportunities for practical legal instruction. However, because of the Bureau’s unique two-year membership requirement, its student attorneys have the chance to delve deeper into their casework and client relationships. As the late Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Bureau class of 1931, stated, “Bureau exposure shows the fascinating world of the practitioner, not as it’s depicted in books, but as it actually is.”

Bureau members got a taste of how crazy this world can be early on. Some memorable early cases include a civil suit after WWII in which one Bureau member defended a woman who was sued when her dog bit a policeman. The Bureau member offered the slogan, “[e]very dog is entitled to one bite.” Not surprisingly, this novel line of defense was unsuccessful. In another case in 1967, two Bureau clients brought a live rat and a bag of cockroaches from their apartments to their trial. Although the judge (vehemently) ordered them removed when the student attorney attempted to present them as demonstrative evidence, the case was a success since the landlord promised to make the necessary apartment repairs.

Over the years, the Bureau has successfully adapted with changing times and currently serves a dual function of community service and pedagogy. The Bureau has taken significant strides in recent years to assess the need for legal assistance in different practice areas in the neighboring communities, which has resulted in several test cases in new areas of law. The Bureau also has incorporated various year-round training opportunities for its members in addition to the required classroom component. In 2002, the Bureau underwent one of its most dramatic changes, moving its office from Gannett House to Baker House.

While the Bureau of 2004 may look different from that start-up organization of 1913, it has remained true to its founding mission-to provide free, high-quality legal assistance to those unable to afford private attorneys. Through 90 years of legal service, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau has certainly made its mark on the Harvard Law School campus and the community at-large.

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