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From Young Upstart to Valuable Voice

by Sue Wasserkrug

Summer 2001, Vol. 64, No. 2

Thirty-five years ago this June, history was made in Philadelphia when the Honorable Raymond Pace Alexander granted Community Legal Services, Inc. a nonprofit corporate charter to provide free legal services for the poor in Philadelphia.

The impetus for the creation of an office staffed by full-time paid attorneys, devoted to meeting the civil legal needs of the poor, came from the Philadelphia Bar Association. In 1965, the Bar's Public Service Committee researched the state of legal services for the poor in Philadelphia and recorded its findings in a report titled, "Law and the War on Poverty in Philadelphia." The committee determined that an enormous need for legal services existed among people living at or below the poverty line, particularly a need to address problems in the areas of welfare, consumer issues, housing, discrimination and family law.

At the time, the primary source of legal assistance for the indigent was the Philadelphia Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit organization supported mainly by the United Fund. Attorneys at the Legal Aid Society worked there only half-time; many of them maintained private practices of their own on the side. Law students, volunteers and investigators rounded out the staff. Unfortunately, in the words of the report, "the Society does not offer a full gamut of legal services. It will not handle certain types of legal problems such as juvenile proceedings, civil rights infringements, or matters involving group action."

Consequently, the committee stressed that any additional service should be comprehensive and community-oriented, and should meet the following criteria, among others:

  1. It must be accessible, friendly, and not a charity, an integral part of a neighborhood activity, with a permanent attorney located in a local office.

  2. Each attorney must be independent and capable of action without bias regardless of the form of the controversy; . . . [and] must be free to bring action where necessary against any governmental agency as well as any individual or institution.

  3. The work of the attorney must be fully integrated with nonlegal social services and with all necessary educational programs.

  4. The service must be comprehensive, both on a remedial and a preventative basis, . . . and capable of initiating any form of legal action for which any other segment of our society could retain counsel.
These criteria became the blueprint for the proposed Community Legal Services, Inc. (CLS). CLS would be an independent, nonprofit corporation governed by a Board of Trustees consisting of both lawyers and members of the community and assisted by an advisory panel of community leaders and various experts such as sociologists and economists. William R. Klaus, author of the above-mentioned report, became the first chair of the Board of Trustees. Funding was obtained from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In its early days, CLS had five neighborhood offices throughout the city. The fledgling organization was staffed by lots of young attorneys who provided general legal services to anyone who walked in the door. Some of the early attorneys saw CLS as a training ground; others made a career out of public service, either at CLS, at other public interest organizations that spun off from CLS, or in other ways, such as government work.

One person who has made a career of public service is Jonathan Stein, who has worked at CLS continuously since 1968, in positions ranging from staff attorney to executive director to general counsel. Among other achievements, Stein was lead counsel, along with CLS attorney Richard Weishaupt, in the Zebley v. Sullivan case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Social Security Administration had been improperly administering its benefits program for disabled children. "The Zebley case demonstrated the potential for vigorous and creative litigation for the poor even in a more conservative judicial climate, the value of smart lawyering and a team approach within legal services, and the ability of CLS to do not only the best for Philadelphia's low-income community, but also have an impact on a national population of the poor," Stein recalled recently. The Zebley case was the largest class action won against the Social Security Administration, affecting more than 450,000 children.

Louis Rulli is another attorney who spent the better part of his legal career at CLS. Rulli began working at CLS in 1973, when he was still a law student. He was hired as a staff attorney-along with twenty others-when he graduated in 1974. He went on to become a supervising attorney, managing attorney, and, in 1986, executive director of CLS, a position he held until 1995, when he left to take a position on the clinical faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Rulli was hired the same year that Congress established the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is "to promote equal access to the system of justice and improve opportunities for low-income people throughout the United States by making grants for the provision of high-quality civil legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford legal counsel." The Legal Services Corporation is funded through Congressional appropriations. As a result of the Legal Services Corporation, legal services organizations around the country flourished; CLS was able to establish a variety of specialized "units" focusing on various areas of the law-employment, housing, consumer, public benefits and family law-and by the late 1970s, it employed a total of ninety-eight attorneys.

In the 1980s, however, when Rulli became executive director, the country was in the middle of the Reagan era, a time that saw the start of a legal services funding crisis that, in some respects, has never ended. Federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation was reduced in 1981, and CLS was engaged in litigation with the Legal Services Corporation throughout much of the 1980s.

Nevertheless, CLS became an extraordinarily successful advocate for the poor. From the very beginning, the organization has been engaged in groundbreaking litigation. As early as 1969, CLS attorneys have been arguing and winning cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1969 case Shapiro v. Thompson, the Court struck down Pennsylvania's one-year residency requirement for applicants seeking welfare benefits (then called Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Since then, CLS has won so many cases in state and federal courts that it was found to be "the most successful of all legal services programs" in the nation, according to a 1990 article in the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly. In the 1990 term alone, CLS attorneys won two cases by a 7-to-2 majority in the U.S. Supreme Court. That, according to Rulli, was "a real tribute to the people who worked at CLS."

The funding cuts forced CLS to close some of its neighborhood offices. Luckily, though, in the early 1990s, CLS had an opportunity to, as Rulli put it, "put the 'community' back into Community Legal Services," when it produced a weekly television show on the then-fledgling WYBE-TV. The show, "The CLS Review," focused on the fundamental legal issues facing low-income viewers: custody, landlord/tenant, bankruptcy, benefits and utilities. On each show, the host interviewed a guest and fielded questions from call-in viewers.

Every week the crew worried that no one would call in, and every week many viewers called with good questions for the staff. "We reached a lot of folks," Rulli mused. He said he received dozens of letters from local residents, thanking CLS for providing information to the community and for caring about the community.

Although the show was a lot of work-none of the CLS crew members were paid extra-it was also a lot of fun. "It showcased the enormous talent that exists at CLS," Rulli recalled, adding, "it was just another example of how dedicated CLS people are."

In 1984, CLS hired an attorney named Catherine Carr. Following in Rulli's footsteps, Carr spent slightly more than ten years as a CLS attorney before taking over as executive director in 1995; she remains in that position today.

Carr took over the reins of CLS at an extraordinarily difficult time in the life of the organization. In contrast to the 1970s days of milk and honey when funding was abundant, the 1990s saw one crisis after another. By the end of the decade, all but one of the neighborhood offices had closed their doors. In 1994, state funds decreased. The next year, Congress proposed huge cuts in Legal Services Corporation funding levels. Even worse, though, Congress also proposed restrictions on the type of work legal services organizations could do if they accepted any Legal Services Corporation funds. These restrictions included prohibitions on litigating class actions on behalf of poor clients and addressing welfare reform issues-precisely the kind of work that CLS excelled in.

Unwilling to accept these restrictions, the Board of CLS decided upon a solution: to create a second organization that would accept Legal Services Corporation funds and live by the accompanying restrictions. CLS would then be free to pursue the goals that had defined its work for nearly thirty years, albeit without federal funds. With the help of the Philadelphia Bar Association, the new organization, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, was incorporated. The anticipated cuts and restrictions became reality with the enactment of the Omnibus Consolidated and Appropriations Act of 1996.

Among the many changes Carr has seen at CLS in the seventeen years she has been there, the gradual shift to one central office, in Center City, and just one neighborhood office is one of the biggest, particularly in terms of service delivery. The downsizing was the inevitable result of continued cuts in funds. Although CLS has less of a community presence, the silver lining to the cloud is that staff members have readier access to one another, making collaboration easier. The challenge now, Carr said, is to get into the communities.

CLS has addressed this challenge by maintaining its one neighborhood office, at Broad Street and Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia. In addition, CLS has created a new position, Community Education Coordinator, who facilitates a variety of outreach activities: educational programs on rights and resources for clients and potential clients, training sessions on legal issues for other service providers within the community, and workshops to assist CLS staff in developing their skills as educators.

And if the budget woes of 1996 were not enough, CLS faced another enormous challenge in 1996: the changes in the federal and state welfare laws, replacing the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Whereas CLS had previously focused on keeping the safety net intact for people who could not find work because of limited skills, disability or other reasons, the new laws opened a whole new can of worms in terms of legal issues facing the poor. Under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, receipt of benefits is limited to five years maximum in an individual's lifetime. After two years, "work requirements" are imposed, regardless of an individual's situation. While there still exists a vulnerable group that experiences overwhelming barriers to work, there is a new and larger group of working poor. Luckily, CLS had the expertise in its various units to emerge as a leader in advocacy on behalf of those affected by the new laws.

In its thirty-five years, CLS has grown from a young upstart into an organization recognized as a valuable voice at the table when it comes to shaping policy. "CLS has matured in the best sense of the word. It has, because of its policy expertise across all areas of poverty and poverty law and its experience in remedying social injustices, become recognized in all circles as a source for creative social problem-solving that is worth listening to," according to Stein.

In fact, some of the other voices at the table in Philadelphia who are now listening to CLS used to work at CLS: Council Member Angel Ortiz, Department of Human Services Director Alba Velez-Martinez, and Mayor John Street's Chief of Staff Joyce Wilkerson all spent time as staff attorneys at CLS. "We attract people who want to change the system for the better. It used to be that the way to change the system was to file a lawsuit; now, CLS attorneys just pick up the telephone. We're at the table negotiating," Carr observed, adding that some CLS attorneys have been doing this work for as long as or longer than anyone else.

CLS continues to be effective not only because of this wealth of expertise, but also because of its ability to see what's happening, in terms of the larger political climate, and respond appropriately. "Twenty years ago, we never would have predicted welfare reform," Carr noted, "and yet we were able to respond, and we're continuing to respond. CLS has progressed from an organization that preserved the safety net, to one that is actively working to create opportunities and improve conditions for our clients."