Award Date

December 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Committee Member

Eugene P. Moehring

Second Committee Member

David S. Tanenhaus

Third Committee Member

Michael S. Green

Fourth Committee Member

Michael W. Bowers

Fifth Committee Member

John A. Schibrowsky

Number of Pages



The lofty idea of equal justice for all is not the reason legal aid began in the United States. Legal aid was born from the indignation over injustices committed against the poor. Unable to afford an attorney, the poor could not effectively assert their rights within the criminal and civil justice system. Without access to justice through the courts, the extralegal activities required to defend oneself and exact justice such as personally forcing an employer to pay rightful wages, are deemed criminal in most cases. By providing legal resources to the poor, legal aid not only brought order to society by preventing lawlessness, but it protected the rights of the poor as citizens. The chronological history of legal services in America, from the first legal aid program, Der Deutsche Rechts Schutzverein in 1876, to the merger in 1964 of the 89-year legal aid movement and the two-year old reform movement, which formed the federally-funded Legal Services Program (LSP) during the War on Poverty, shows the proliferation of legal aid societies in urban areas across the nation.

Under the Great Society’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and the LSP, legal aid greatly expanded with the use of discretionary government funding. During the mid-1960s and early 1970s Legal Services programs showed great promise in eliminating the barriers that kept the poor entrenched in poverty. With the use of national “back-up centers”, the Reginald Heber Smith (Reggie) program and other initiatives, legal aid programs created a nation-wide network designed to help the poor with more than just their legal problems. Programs used class actions, legislative advocacy, and threat of attorney’s fees to reform laws and attack the very institutions afflicting the poor. As the history of legal aid in America becomes more apparent, the LSP looks more like an aberration, especially considering the previous eighty-nine years of legal aid as strictly a privately-funded affair. Designed to fight a war on poverty, LSP awarded grants to the majority of established legal aid societies, but because their boards and directors held fast to the traditional idea of legal services they were reluctant to use law reform to correct injustices. Reluctant board members, directors and those who ran the programs, in tandem with local bars, the unenthusiastic American Bar Association, and powerful business and political opponents ultimately eliminated law reform; as such, an opportunity to truly help the poor during the last decades of the twentieth century was lost.

Access to Justice is less a “right” today than it was in the 1960s. Since the advent of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 1974, the quality of legal services to the poor has steadily diminished. The conservative view that legal aid is a form of unnecessary welfare and unnecessary interference by the federal government played a dominant role in the restrictions placed on LSC funds during the Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich eras. The "Republican Revolution" in 1996 resulted in the greatest restrictions on funding and ultimately ended the controversial "Support Centers" and "Reggie" program. These restrictions reflect the historical concept of the “sturdy beggar” and the bygone philosophy that legal aid is a form of charity; as such, they work to identify and restrict the able-bodied poor from receiving any type of government aid, including legal services. LSC restrictions and initiatives promote the use of alternative delivery methods such as Pro Bono and Pro Se that move field programs away from quality legal services and suggest a return to the private charity days of the first legal aid movement. Without quality programs that allow legal services attorneys unrestricted use of the tools available to private attorneys, America’s promise of justice for all will continue to exclude the impoverished. The most heinous restriction, which places LSC restrictions on non-LSC funds today, creates an unnecessary and expensive overlap of legal services in Nevada, making it more difficult to coordinate the patchwork of legal services that comprise Nevada’s make-shift civil Gideon.

The thesis includes interviews with those involved in legal aid in Nevada such as Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas, Former NLS Executive Directors Carolyn Worrell and Wayne Pressel, Executive Director of NLS AnnaMarie Johnson, founder of Nevada Indian Legal Services Charles Zeh, Director of Nevada Indian Legal Services Dick Olson, and legal aid attorney and legislative advocate Jon Sasser. It utilizes the early work of Reginald Heber Smith, his book Justice and the Poor, and former OEO Director Earl Johnson Jr’s publications, Justice and Reform and To Establish Justice for All, to trace the growth and atrophy of legal representation for the poor. The thesis extends our knowledge by providing a more current overview of LSC with special emphasis on its Nevada Legal Services (NLS) program. The thesis also complements Annelise Orleck’s study of Ruby Duncan and the welfare rights movement by putting legal services in Nevada into great historical context.

According to Justice Michael Douglas, there is still a group in the public which does not believe that legal aid is the work of a real attorney. This group argues that legal services lawyers must be second-tier attorneys, because a successful first-tier attorney would never choose legal aid as a career. Many of those interviewed such as Wayne Pressel, Jon Sasser and others are still fighting, in their own unique way, a war on poverty, an idea anathema to the American Bar Association, and the Legal Services Corporation today. Not only did these legal aid leaders challenge the institutions that perpetuate poverty, they refuted the idea that legal aid is a charity and through their work and talent disproved the second-tier attorney stigma that extends to the “people’s lawyer” and the legal aid profession.


Access to Justice; Legal Aid; Legal Services Corporation; Legal Services Program; Nevada Legal Services; Republican Revolution


Law | Political Science | United States History

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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