The Legal Aid Society of Rochester, N.Y. traces its origins to the formation of the Rochester's Woman's Educational and Industrial Union (W.E.I.U.) in 1893. The W.E.I.U., founded in part by Susan B. Anthony and Dr. Sarah Dolley, was established to bring together diverse women's groups in Rochester. The W.E.I.U.'s purpose was to provide a strong unified force, working to eradicate the many problems facing women of the era. To facilitate their goals, the W.E.I.U. formed committees, including a Legal Protection Committee dedicated to "command the social and legal rights of women to public attention...assist in all measures which may be taken to secure the (legal) rights of any who may apply..." The Legal Protection Committee evolved into the Legal Aid Society of Rochester.
The Legal Protection Committee met for one hour a week to review applicants' complaints. Each complaint was carefully examined and efforts were made by the committee to reach a peaceful settlement of the matter. If an amicable solution could not be reached or if the cases required court appearances, the individuals were referred to a group of local attorneys acting as counsel for the committee. Typical cases at the turn of the century included wages wrongfully withheld, improper seizure of property, such as sewing machines, and refusal to deliver goods, such as coal, for which payment had been made.
The demand for help from the Legal Protection Committee continued to grow. In 1910, it became necessary to maintain daily office hours and to rent space in a central location in the city. The Committee settled in the Wilder Building. Economic support for the Committee's work, including court costs and filing fees, was met by donations from local people and corporations, including George Eastman, the Bausch & Lomb Company, and the Rochester Bar Association. In 1914, the Legal Protection Committee extended its aid to include men. It co-located in the Cutler Building with the United Charities' Department of Family Welfare to facilitate the delivery of services to a common client base. Applicants sought relief mainly in family matters, evictions, and small wage claims. The office was referred to as the Legal Aid Bureau and shared with United Charities a collective client indexing system called the Confidential Exchange. By 1916, the work of the Legal Aid Bureau was managed by paid staff including an attorney and stenographer and drew its financial support from the community aided by United Charities efforts. The types of cases served included non-support, wage claims, "husband and wife", custody, "defendant money," and advice.
Eventually, the Legal Aid Bureau reached a point of development where it seemed wise to separate from the United Charities. In 1918, it became an independent organization. Coincidentally, through the efforts of George Eastman and the people of Rochester, the War Chest was formed to provide a consolidated community effort to raise funds for philanthropies. At the conclusion of World War I, the great success of the campaign induced the War Chest to continue as the Community Chest, making Rochester the first city to convert its War Chest into a peacetime Chest. The Legal Aid Bureau became a charter organization of the Chest and continues to this day to receive funds from the United Way.
The Legal Aid Society incorporated in 1921 as a not-for-profit corporation, with Caroline C. Crane as Executive Director. Ms. Crane was an attorney from Canandaigua. Although the Society parted from the Woman's Educational and Industrial Union, the association with that group remained for many years. Mrs. Fannie Bigelow, who was a member of the W.E.I.U's Executive Committee and had served on the Legal Protection Committee, became the first president of the Legal Aid Society's Board of Directors. The W.E.I.U. provided funds for furnishings and helped to close deficits in the early years of the Society's incorporation. Also, the W.E.I.U. was instrumental in supporting a Public Defender at Legal Aid through the 1920's and '30's.
During the twenties, the Legal Aid Society persisted in its vigorous representation of the indigent in civil cases and in the promotion of ideas such as pro bono work from the private bar and the formation of a Domestic Relations Court to extend its services. The Legal Aid Society continued its close association with the Woman's Educational and Industrial Union (W.E.I.U.), and with their support, funded a Public Defender program to represent indigent defendants in criminal proceedings. This program operated throughout the twenties and thirties. With the financial support of the Community Chest and the Rochester Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society expanded its impact in the community with both direct service and the promotion of legislative reform. As a founding member of the Association of Welfare Agencies, the Legal Aid Society closely examined the impact of local government and tried to influence government actions to benefit the indigent in legal matters. The decade also marked the beginning of Emery Brownell's employment with the agency. Mr. Brownell went on to a distinguished legal career, eventually becoming the director of the Legal Aid Society. Mr. Brownell also became the Executive Director of the National Association of Legal Aid Organizations (now known as the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association). Due to Mr. Brownell's long-standing commitment to the cause of representing the poor, the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association present a national service award in his honor yearly.
In the thirties, the Legal Aid Society faced many new challenges, not the least of which was to maintain funding during the Great Depression. It was during this period that the Legal Aid Society first received aid from the City of Rochester. Given the changing demographics in the community, the agency expanded its services to include the entire county and worked on a contract basis with the Monroe County Department of Public Welfare to provide services. A Committee on Legal Aid was appointed by the local Bar Association and established a directory of volunteer lawyers available to aid in cases referred by the Legal Aid Society. Emery Brownell and the Board of Directors continued to propose and promote legislation for the benefit of the indigent in legal matters such as: family law reform, amendments to other New York State laws governing poor persons, unemployment compensation, and the establishment of Savings Bank Life Insurance. Benjamin E. Solin was hired as a staff attorney. He was to become Executive Director when Emery Brownell left to work directly for the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association.
The Second World War brought a new series of issues for the Legal Aid Society to confront. In the mid-forties, nearly one-third of the cases taken by the Legal Aid Society concerned veterans' and GI's legal needs. The agency expanded its services to deal with the military personnel from a naval training station and bomber base located near Geneva, New York. The needs of the war effort led to a referral system between the Legal Aid Society and the American Red Cross. Many of the issues dealt with a housing shortage for the returning military. The Legal Aid Society and its Board of Directors led discussions in the community concerning the establishment of a Small Claims Court and a municipal Housing Authority, while watching its young staff go off to serve in the military.
The fifties and sixties saw the return of a Public Defender, first with the Legal Aid Society, then to become a separate county agency. The establishment of Small Claims Court and Family Court rewarded the earlier efforts of Mr. Brownell and the agency. The Federal Office of Economic Opportunity's legal assistance programs expanded the opportunities for the poor and working poor, providing some assistance in the battle to achieve equal justice for all. The Legal Aid Society was host to the national convention of the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association and, in 1951, saw the publication of Emery Brownell's book, Legal Aid in the United States, a definitive text, describing legal aid to the indigent throughout the nation. Benjamin E. Solin became Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society and hired James R. Boyle to be a staff attorney. The Legal Aid Society started the Law Guardian Program with the Office of Court Administration in 1962, to represent the interests of and protect the rights of children in Family Court. James R. Boyle became the first Law Guardian.
During the last third of the 20th century the Legal Aid Society expanded its services to meet the growing legal needs of the low-income population of Monroe and surrounding counties.
In the 1970's, through funding provided by the City of Rochester's Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (C.E.T.A.) program, the agency increased its attorney staff. This grant allowed the agency to begin to use paraprofessional staff to maximize limited resources. The decade concluded with Benjamin E. Solin retiring, after 40 years of service at the Legal Aid Society, as Executive Director and with the appointment of James Boyle as the Executive Director.
In the 1980's, the Legal Aid Society began an Hispanic Outreach Program, in conjunction with the United Way, to work with the growing Hispanic population in the City of Rochester and Monroe County. In this decade there was a large increase in caseload and staff in the Law Guardian Program as the New York State Office of Court Administration focused more resources in the representation of juveniles in child protective cases.
In 1987, the Legal Aid Society incorporated the Monroe County Youth Advocacy Project, Inc. (MCYAP) into the agency as the Youth Advocacy Program. This saved programs that provided services to school age youth and their parents who had legal problems within the education system. The incorporation of MCYAP also included providing services in Livingston County, the first legal services program provided by the Legal Aid Society outside Monroe County. In 1996, the Youth Advocacy Program was expanded into Genesee and Orleans Counties.
The 1990's began with the retirement of James Boyle, after 36 years of service at the Legal Aid Society, as Executive Director and the appointment of Alan Harris as Executive Director. In 1990, a "program based" system for the delivery of legal services was instituted with the creation of the Domestic Violence, Tenant Advocacy, and Domestic Relations Programs.
In 1990, the City of Rochester helped to establish an Owner Tenant Mediation Program to assist landlords and tenants to resolve disputes in a non-adversarial forum, using agency staff. In 1993, the Immigration Program was started by the incorporation of the Immigration Legal Services Center, a small agency of concerned advocates struggling to provide legal services to non-citizens. In 1995, in response to United Way community investment decisions, a Child Support Program was created out of the Domestic Relations Program to help custodial parents receive adequate and ongoing child support.
In 1996 the Housing Unit was recognized by the United Way as the recipient of the Quality Award for Excellence in Human Service Programming. The Housing Unit, through its Tenant Advocacy Program, represented city residents facing immediate eviction in the City Court of Rochester and the Owner Tenant Mediation Program provided mediation services to landlords and tenants.
The Domestic Violence Program grew from one attorney in 1990 to five attorneys in 1997 through increased United Way investment, a collaborative program with Alternatives for Battered Women and Monroe County, and the award of two New York State Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors (S.T.O.P.) grants through the Division of Criminal Justice Services. The S.T.O.P. grants allowed the Legal Aid Society to provide domestic violence legal services in Orleans and Wayne Counties for the first time. The Family Law Unit, which includes the Domestic Violence and Child Support Programs, received the United Way Gold Award in 1997 for outstanding program performance. The Housing Unit also received a 1997 Gold Award.
In 1999, LAS, with six (6) other agency partners, obtained a federal grant from the United States Department of Justice to provide domestic violence services to a nine county area including Monroe County. This grant, from the Violence Against Women's Act (VAWA), provides comprehensive domestic violence services to victims of domestic violence. The grant was renewed in 2001. In addition, LAS is the administrator of a VAWA grant obtained by Monroe County to provide administrative oversight for the Monroe County Domestic Violence Consortium.
In 2002, LAS expanded its immigration program to cover all of upstate New York that is under the jurisdiction of the Buffalo, New York district office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This expanded program has two (2) partners: the Frank H. Hiscock Legal Aid Society in Syracuse, New York and the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York in Albany, New York. This program provides legal assistance to immigrants in upstate New York; providing the only representation available for low income residents in this geographic area.
The LAS and the Housing Council of Rochester began a collaborative program to assist homeowners who are in default of their mortgage. This program further assists with defense against predatory loan practices. The new housing program is also assisting low income first time home buyers to help them become eligible for a mortgage and to assist with the closing and purchase of their home.
The Legal Aid Society has worked to establish linkages with other legal and social service agencies throughout the county to provide a broad range of legal services to the community. The Legal Aid Society established a long and close association with Alternatives for Battered Woman, a domestic violence shelter, and the Ibero American Action league, the largest social service agency serving the Hispanic community. The Legal Aid Society also participated with other legal services providers in projects such as: the Recovery Place Collaborative, providing legal services to recovering substance abusers, and the Attorney of the Morning Program with the Volunteer Legal Service Project, training lawyers to provide pro bono legal services to tenants facing eviction in the Rochester City Court.
The Legal Aid Society of Rochester, N.Y. had its beginning in 1893 with the establishment of a Legal Protection Committee of the Woman's Educational and Industrial Union. The Committee's purpose was to "command the legal...rights of women to public attention and...assist in all measures which may be taken to secure the (legal) rights of any who may apply." Eventually, the committee served anyone who could not afford legal representation. Throughout the twentieth century, the Legal Aid Society grew to meet the challenges of each era. In the twenty first century, the agency will continue to work to "secure the rights of the indigent".
This history was derived from multiple sources including but not limited to: Rundel's W.E.I.U. collection, minutes from the W.E.I.U., minutes from The Legal Aid Society of Rochester and United Charities, histories provided by United Way, Eastman House, and Family Service of Rochester, and collections from the University of Rochester's Rare Books division.