Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2006


Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Celebrates 95 Years

In the last 95 years, Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau has helped close to two million poor people with their legal needs. This remarkable legal services agency has provided free civil legal assistance to low-income Marylanders for close to a century and has served as a strong advocate for systemic change to protect the rights of the poor and improve their welfare. This year, Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) is commemorating its 95th year, celebrating a century of milestones.

Legal Aid's caseload
has never waned,
nor has the need of
the indigent for
civil legal services.


Across nine decades, LAB has grown from a small Baltimore City legal services agency helping several hundred immigrants and poor people with their legal problems to a comprehensive statewide legal services network that assists the indigent, homeless, disabled, children, residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, migrant workers and others with their civil legal needs. Today, LAB is a statewide private, non-profit law firm with 13 offices. Its 266 attorneys, paralegals and other staff provide free civil legal services to 50,000+ indigent Marylanders a year.

This dynamic organization now offers an array of services to help income-eligible vulnerable populations with a myriad of civil legal problems ranging from family and domestic matters, housing, health care, homelessness and public benefits to consumer and financial issues. LAB provides legal advice and representation at hearings and trials, including children in CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) proceedings, and handles referrals. In a broader sense, it champions the cause of the poor, bringing equity and stability to society.

LAB has given almost a century of outstanding service to Maryland's poor and served as a strong and effective advocate championing the rights of the indigent. "Legal Aid has played a vanguard role in protecting and advocating for the rights of low-income people," states LAB Executive Director Wilhelm H. Joseph, Jr. "In doing so, its work has contributed to making real the idea of equal justice for all, although to a less than desirable degree than the need requires."

In 95 years, Legal Aid's caseload has never waned, nor has the need of the indigent for civil legal services, which is staggering. Although LAB serves over 50,000 a year, more than 500,000 are eligible under its financial guidelines. LAB is only able to help about 20 percent of those needing it. Too many Marylanders are still denied access to justice.


At the beginning of the 20th century, wealthy people in this country could afford attorneys while the poor were forced to turn to the Charity Organization Society for legal assistance on a pro bono basis. In the early 1900s, American cities began forming societies to provide legal assistance to the indigent. In 1911, Federated Charities founded the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore and this fledgling agency's part-time staff handled 234 cases its first year. For the next two decades, LAB functioned as a Federated Charities program, relying on private contributions for funding.

In 1929, Legal Aid became an independent, private nonprofit corporation with a budget of $4,433. When the Depression hit in 1932, the legal needs of the poor soared and Legal Aid was given free office space by Baltimore City's government. Its financial support increased, as did its staff, with the addition of attorneys from the federal government's Works Progress Administration. LAB's caseload rose to 3,200 clients that year.

Legal Aid's budget grew to $12,000 by the late '30s, with an annual caseload of 5,000. It began to expand its mission, compiling statistics to illustrate the indigent's legal dilemmas. Thus, LAB's role as an advocate for the poor was born. It started recommending remedial legislation to protect the indigent's civil rights, but, at the time, it lacked the resources and clout to realize meaningful change.

Legal Aid served its 100,000th client in 1948, and its annual caseload by then totaled 7,000, including many returning World War II veterans. In 1953, Legal Aid moved to Baltimore City's new People's Court Building. The '60s brought the civil rights movement, with Legal Aid juggling a $64,000 annual budget and a staff of six lawyers to handle 9,000 clients a year.

In the '70s, Legal Aid employed 34 staff attorneys and, with a $1.7 million budget, opened neighborhood offices in the city, then in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford Counties. It launched Baltimore's first public defender program, defending people accused of crimes until Maryland created the state Office of the Public Defender in 1972. To increase the effectiveness and efficiency of its legal work, LAB also pioneered a paralegal program.

Two major milestones arrived in 1974. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was created, and Charles H. Dorsey became Executive Director of Legal Aid. Under Dorsey's leadership, LAB expanded to Prince George's County, Cumberland and Salisbury, serving the urban and rural poor populations, with an annual budget of $12.5 million. Its attorneys started taking on larger cases, often using class-action litigation, and LAB championed causes like the migrant farm workers, the state's steel industry practice of preventing women and minorities from getting higher-paying jobs and mentally-disabled people. It won several landmark decisions.

The '80s hit LAB hard with seven straight budgets devoid of federal LSC funding as President Ronald Reagan sought its elimination. Legal Aid ultimately lost $1.2 million, forcing staff cuts. Thus, Maryland's General Assembly created the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC) to provide funding for Legal Aid and pro bono provider organizations, which in turn formed the Interest of Lawyers' Trust Account (IOLTA) program to collect interest paid on lawyer trust accounts to fund legal service organizations.

LSC's funding was slashed from $400 million to $278 million in 1995 and LAB lost $1.4 million, a 34 percent drop. Congress also placed major restrictions on what LSC-funded lawyers could do, prohibiting class-actions, barring the collection of attorneys' fees, rulemaking, lobbying, litigating on behalf of prisoners and representation of drug-related public housing evictions and certain categories of immigrants.

In 1996, LAB lost a hero when Dorsey suddenly died. However, the Bureau was very fortunate when Wilhelm H. Joseph, Jr., succeeded Dorsey as Executive Director. Under Joseph's leadership, LAB funding has gone from $7 to $20 million a year and expanded its special services, through structured formal units, to include: Pro Bono Unit; Pro Se Unit; MLAN; Affordable Housing Preservation; Farm Workers; Administrative Law; Domestic Law; CINA; Housing/Consumer; Elderly/Nursing Home/Assisted Living; 60+ Program; 60+ Legal Program; Education; Employment; Public Benefits; Family Law Hotline; Senior Law Hotline; and the Child Support Abell Program in Baltimore City.

"In the last 10 years, we have strengthened partnerships with the legislature, private funding entities, the private bar and the union (including finalizing a collective bargaining agreement)," exclaims Joseph. "In totality, that's given us the ability to present ourselves to our clientele as a source of stable, competent and zealous services."

LAB has come far under Joseph's leadership. "He has put us on firm financial footing with the Equal Justice Council, which he formed in 1997," states Warren S. Oliveri, Jr., President of LAB's Board of Directors, "and with his work at the General Assembly getting civil court filing fees passed to fund legal services. That's his legacy, along with the return of many former Legal Aid attorneys (mostly because of higher salaries we now pay) and a better spirit generally throughout Legal Aid."

Anniversary Celebration

On Saturday, October 14, LAB celebrated its 95th anniversary with a Homecoming Gala, inviting all Legal Aid alumni to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture for a special reunion. More than 400 people attended the Gala, enjoying a reception, dinner, dancing and a tour of the Museum's many exhibits. "This was the first time Legal Aid congregated its staff and volunteers over the years to share news and reminisce about the past," states Joe Surkiewicz, LAB Director of Communications.

One of the highlights of the evening was a brief program depicting LAB's distinguished history and honoring the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau's special Champions of Justice: Benjamin R. Civiletti, Alice Jews, George W. McManus Jr., Judge Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, Margaret Smith, and Judge Dennis M. Sweeney.

"Our work constitutes a continual cycle of confronting challenges and executing (them) appropriately," asserts Joseph. "Celebration is an oft-overlooked, yet very important, phase of that cycle. It's our way of saying thank you to all who have given, to encourage those still giving and to shed light on hope for those who will be giving in the future." Joseph is already looking ahead to LAB's 100th anniversary, which "will really be something to talk about!"



Publications : Bar Bulletin: October 2006