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The Boston Legal Aid Society, 1900-1925
Massachusetts Legal History (2003)
  • Mark Spiegel, Boston College Law School

This article examines the history of the Boston Legal Aid Society from its founding in 1900 through 1925. In so doing I explore why was Boston Legal Aid started. Depending upon what sources you consult the Boston Legal Aid Society was either the third or fourth legal aid organization started in the United States. The first was New York in 1876 and the second was in Chicago, in the 1880's. My question is why Boston in 1900? What were the forces that led to the founding of this organization at that point in time? Was it part of the effort of elite lawyers to legitimize their representation of corporate interests? Was it related to other social service efforts in Boston? Or was it an outgrowth of the Progressive movement?

The second question I explore, which is related to this first question, is what goals did the Boston Legal Aid Society see itself pursuing. Was it simply another charitable organization? Was its goal access to justice or did it see itself as accomplishing substantive social reform? In answering this question, I explore the work of the Boston Legal Society during these first twenty-five years. I look at the kinds of cases it accepted and its methods of handling its cases. In examining the work of the Boston Legal Aid Society I discover a significant shift in the type of work and its attitude toward the work. In its early years Boston Legal Aid Society fit the image of a traditional legal aid society. It viewed providing legal services as charity and did not see substantive social reform as a legitimate part of its agenda. However, post 1913, a shift occurred. Reginald Heber Smith, author of Justice and the Poor, became its General Counsel. Although the Society continued to do individual casework, it also began engaging in what Smith call preventive law. The Boston Legal Aid Society was willing to be aggressive in bringing legislative proposals and engage in law reform efforts, as well as having a commitment to community education. Post World-War I, however, the work of the Boston Legal Aid Society returned to a more traditional type of legal aid that focused primarily on domestic relations cases.

This history of the first twenty five years of the Boston Legal Aid Society reveals there are contradictory impulses that have been part of legal aid from the beginning and that perhaps will always be with us. It also illustrates that legal aid has a more progressive past than has been commonly thought and perhaps we still have lessons to learn from that past.

Publication Date
Citation Information
Mark Spiegel. "The Boston Legal Aid Society, 1900-1925" Massachusetts Legal History Vol. 9 (2003)
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