The Legal Aid Society was founded in 1876 to defend the individual rights of German immigrants who could not afford to hire a lawyer. The massive influx of poor immigrants into New York City in the years following the Civil War bred resentment and immigrants often became the targets of graft and hostility. The German Society, a philanthropic organization dedicated to assisting German immigrants, incorporated Der Deutscher Rechts-Schutz Verein (The German Legal Aid Society) on March 8, 1876, under the direction of Edward Salmon, a Prussian born lawyer and former governor of Wisconsin, and with financial support from its charter members, German-American lawyers, merchants, and businessmen.
The first office was at 39 Nassau Street, staffed by attorney Charles K. Lexow. Lexow, a graduate of Columbia Law School, handled 212 cases in the first year, collecting a total of $1,000 for his clients. Within a year Lexow's caseload more than tripled, and additional staff attorneys were hired. To accommodate the increased demand for services, the office was moved to a larger space at 239 Broadway. Great change came to Der Deutscher Rechts-Schutz Verein in 1890 with the appointment of Arthur von Briesen as president. A well-respected New York lawyer, von Briesen had a particular sympathy for the poor, having himself eked out a living as a young man , earning barely $1 a week in variety of jobs. He saved enough to study law at New York University School of Law and went on to practice as a patent attorney and senior member of three prominent firms. Von Briesen was a dedicated and visionary leader who insisted from the start that there be no barriers of nationality and that the guarantees of democracy be made available to all. He reasoned that when immigrants are treated justly and are protected, they become good citizens who will love and honor their country. The organization was reincorporated under a new name, The Legal Aid Society. Its amended mission statement declared that, "[The Society's] object and purpose shall be, to render legal aid, gratuitously if necessary, to all who may appear worthy thereof and who, from poverty, are unable to procure it."
The response was overwhelming. By 1911, The Legal Aid Society was handling nearly 34,000 cases a year. Although the Society struggled to keep pace with the growing demand for its services, it continued to provide effective representation to all those who required it. The Society's praiseworthy achievements led von Briesen to declare that, "No one will dare trample the rights of the poor and helpless under foot, as long as the appearance of the Society's attorney in court demands respect and careful consideration of the rights of its clients." Under von Briesen's leadership, The Legal Aid Society established itself as a financially independent organization. Von Briesen brought the work of the Society into the public eye and called upon New York City's leading citizens to lend their support. Such prominent figures as Henry Ward Beecher, Carl Schurz, Robert W. DeForest, James C. Carter, Seth Low, Elihu Root,Joseph H. Choate and Theodore Roosevelt heeded the call, endorsing the Society's ideals and becoming lifelong members. The Rockefellers and Andrew Carnegie also made substantial donations to the Society, enabling much needed expansion of its operation. Benefit concerts and operas, featuring the most famous performing artists of the day, were held at the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall to raise funds.
It was Charles Evans Hughes, former Supreme Court Justice and Governor of New York, who is credited with placing the Society's finances on a firm foundation. Hughes succeeded von Briesen in 1917 and implemented new classes of membership. He enlisted the support of New York's leading law firms and moved The Legal Aid Society closer to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and other lawyers' associations.
As New York City grew, so too did The Legal Aid Society and the scope of its work. Beginning in 1899, the Society established five branch offices in part to provide easier access to the many who could not afford the journey to the main office near City Hall. Each new office the Seaman's Branch, the West Side Branch, the East Side Branch, the Harlem Branch, and the Brooklyn Branch - addressed the unique problems of particular groups of people in their respective neighborhoods.
The founders of the Society had expressed a desire to assist the poor in criminal matters as early as 1879. Because of limited resources, criminal cases were handled only with the express permission of the Law Committee of the Board of Directors. By 1910 the Society was providing regular criminal defense representation at the Essex Market Courthouse. In 1917, a group of public-spirited lawyers, known as the Voluntary Defenders Committee, dedicated their efforts to defending indigent persons accused of crime. Their efforts were underwritten by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and they became known as Rockefeller Lawyers. The Society assisted the group and, in 1920, established the first true Criminal Court Branch. In 1963, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, changed the operation of the Criminal Court Branch because, two years later, the City of New York designated The Legal Aid Society as the primary defender for criminal defense and criminal appeals representation.
The Juvenile Rights Practice was established concurrently with New York State's Family Court in 1962, five years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gault that children have a constiutional right to counsel at government expense.
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