This year, New York City's Legal Aid Society, the nation's oldest and largest corporation providing legal services to the poor, arrived at one of those momentous crossroads that define the shape of an organization—and it chose to go in the diametrically wrong direction. After the society had come perilously close to self-destructing during a foolhardy strike of its 1 ,000 staff attorneys, its board went looking for a new executive director. Instead of seizing the opportunity to take a hard look at Legal Aid's accomplishments and principles and move the society onto a much-needed new course, the board made a choice that reaffirmed, indeed strengthened, the legal radicalism that has been the organization's signature since the 1960s. 

Legal Aid needs fundamental reform because its destructive legal activism has been central in bringing New York to its current fiscal and social dead end. It was in New York that taxpayer-funded lawyers achieved many of the nation's most radical advances in "poverty law"; now, in New York City's poorest communities, the damage wrought to the social fabric by those legal victories is starkly clear. Legal Aid has been the driving force behind many of the endless court mandates that have multiplied the city's social pathology and caused its welfare costs to skyrocket.

The ultimate goal of legal services for the poor ought to be to help poor people escape poverty. Instead, Legal Aid has dedicated itself to maintaining a permanent victim class. In the process, it has undermined the very qualities that over the generations have helped poor people rise: the work ethic, social responsibility, and respect for law and order.

The society didn't start out this way. It was founded in 1876 to help newly arrived German immigrants with their legal problems. With a financial boost from the Rockefeller family, it expanded its mandate to provide representation to all needy New Yorkers. During the early part of this century, the society worked closely with settlement house leaders, sharing their view that the best way to help poor immigrants was to speed their assimilation into American society. Legal Aid took as its guiding principle Abraham Lincoln's admonition to lawyers, inscribed on placards hung prominently in the organization's offices: "Discourage litigation [and] persuade your neighbor to compromise whenever you can."

This approach crumbled in the 1960s. As New York City became the center for the radical new poverty law, Legal Aid found itself challenged on its left by organizations like Mobilization for Youth (MFY) and Columbia University's Center on Law and Social Welfare. Many of the new poverty lawyers also came out of the Old Left National Lawyers Guild.

In contrast with Legal Aid's traditional approach, focused on solving a particular client's concrete problem, MFY and the Columbia Center aimed to use the legal system aggressively as an instrument of social change. They viewed the poor as an undifferentiated class, victims of an unjust political and economic system that favored the rich and powerful. Thus it followed that lawyers for the poor should be primarily concerned not with obtaining justice for individual clients but with restructuring society to "liberate" the entire class of poor people.

Radical legal theoreticians, working with Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, political strategists for the national welfare rights movement, came up with the "crisis theory" approach to what was then called welfare reform. The plan: bombard the welfare system with class-action suits, finding new constitutional arguments for expanding rights and benefits, until the costs of these new entitlements became overwhelming. At that point, according to the theory, the idea of a government-guaranteed minimum income for the poor would be politically irresistible. 

At first, the venerable Legal Aid Society would have none of this. Its staff believed that lawyers from MFY and the Columbia Center were being unlawyerlike in going to churches to seek out clients for class-action suits. But ultimately Legal Aid could not resist the new spirit of the age. Though until 1965 its lawyers had never brought a case to the U.S. Supreme Court, by 1974 Legal Aid had argued more than 170 cases before the High Court, including many class actions. Over the past two decades Legal Aid has entered fully into the fray of poverty law. Today, says Michael Letwin, president of the union representing the organization's staff attorneys, "almost by definition, Legal Aid tends to attract radical, sixties types." With a near monopoly on government-funded legal services in the city, it now offers itself as the one true representative of the poor. 

Just when both the city and the nation are reconsidering the failed social policies of the past three decades, Legal Aid is lurching still farther to the left. The rationale for Legal Aid lawyers' October 1994 strike exemplifies their countercultural ethos. The strikers weren't interested so much in money, insists union president Letwin, as in securing "a place at the table" and an end to the "alienation" they suffered in a "hierarchical" organization.

Unfortunately for the union, Mayor Giuliani was unsympathetic to the attorneys' cries of alienation. With the labor impasse threatening to bring the city's courts to a halt, the mayor offered the strikers an ultimatum: return to work m 24 hours, or the city would cancel $80 million in contracts with Legal Aid, and no striking lawyer would ever again work for the city. At one point in the high-noon confrontation, Letwin demonstrated his own rejection of hierarchy by breaking through a picket line near City Hall and mounting a personal assault on Mayor Giuliani's official car—alternately screaming profanities and revolutionary slogans. Just hours before the deadline, the lawyers voted to save their jobs and return to work. But even before the strike, the city had imposed significant cuts in the legal services budget, so that when the strike ended, the society's board had to finesse the cuts while contending with an embittered staff and its militant union.

It might have been useful if someone in a position of responsibility had considered that one of the main reasons for the city's—and therefore also Legal Aid's—present budget crisis is that New York has been running the country's most expensive social welfare system. The well from which Legal Aid has been drawing is running dry. Legal Aid's boardroom was where such a critical review should have begun: the 54-member board of directors is a who's who of the city's powerful corporate law firms. These are lawyers whose clients pay them a lot of money to think creatively about striving institutional problems. They might have examined the future of Legal Aid in light of the changed conditions in the city. 

Unfortunately, the legal profession has of late tended to romanticize legal services. Rightly viewing representation for the poor as one of the glories of American justice, prominent lawyers have failed to distinguish between helping individual clients and making policy through class-action suits—often at the expense of the poor.

The board was worse than uncritical. It reached back into the golden age of legal services radicalism. A month after the strike, the directors selected 49-year-old Daniel Greenberg, an unrepentant child of the New Left, as the new executive director and attorney in charge. "I think the movements of the sixties and seventies were very important," Greenberg says. "It was a time of ferment, of confronting institutional authority. I see myself as very much shaped by that time."

Greenberg developed his views on poverty law at MFY, as a staff attorney and then as director of a neighborhood office on the Lower East Side. During the 1980s Greenberg also served as president of the National Lawyers Guild's New York chapter, then dominated by a loose coalition of pro-Communist and New Leftist lawyers who shared an antipathy toward "American imperialism" and a Marxist analysis of law as simply a reflection of class relations in a capitalist society. 

One must assume that the board chose Greenberg precisely because of his radical ideological background. His résumé reveals no significant experience administering large institutions. (The MFY office be directed had only a handful of lawyers; he also spent seven years running a small clinical program at Harvard Law School.) His courtroom experience is entirely in civil law, whereas over 75 percent of Legal Aid's day-to-day business is in the criminal courts. 

In his discussions with the board, Greenberg says, he made clear that he would take Legal Aid on a more confrontational path. "My criticism of Legal Aid was that, if anything, it has been too conservative. We have to be more articulate and unabashed about representing poor people's needs," He presented these views to the board, he says, as a "predicate for my taking the job?" 

Why would a board composed of staid corporate lawyers seek out an ideological firebrand to head an organization in crisis? A key factor in this strange alliance was the union. Board members were embarrassed by the strike and tired of years of strained labor relations. They had no stomach to tame the militant union. "One of the reasons there was a strike was the accumulated anger over poor labor-management relations," says board chairman Thomas R. Brome, a senior partner in the prestigious firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. The board saw Greenberg as the man to bring peace, even if the price was empowering the union and further radicalizing Legal Aid.

Having almost blown up Legal Aid, the union was given an unprecedented role in selecting the new CEO. "We were consulted. We were asked our opinion," says Letwin. "The idea the board had after the strike was that we have to get along better. They wanted inclusion in the princess of determining who would lead Legal Aid. We were happy that they listened to us. The criterion was that it was going to be someone who believed in management by consensus instead of command and control, which doesn't work."

Greenberg hasn't disappointed his union supporters. His aim, in one critic's words, is to transform Legal Aid into a "sixties-style legal commune. " He has established "policy councils" in each of the organization's divisions, with equal union and management representation. Union boss Letwin himself has helped run staff meetings; at one, a union member stood up and told the supervisors that they didn't run the place anymore. He wasn't exaggerating. Since the city cut Legal Aid 's budget, union members have not suffered a single involuntary layoff, while over 100 supervisors have been summarily fired.

In one of the first personnel moves under the new regime, all employees at Legal Aid, including clerks and secretaries, received forms to evaluate supervising attorneys. The evaluations would remain anonymous, and employees could submit as many forms as they wished. It was partly based on these evaluations that Greenberg decided which supervisors to fire.

To get a sense of Legal Aid's new office culture, consider a job announcement for the position of supervising attorney in the criminal defense division. It begins with the obligatory diversity statement: "Women, people of color, and gays and lesbians are particularly encouraged to apply." It then lists the essential qualities of a supervising criminal trial attorney: " Applicants must be willing to help redefine the supervisory/management role. . . . Supervisors should question models of supervision that conceptualize a 'management team' that is structurally separate from staff." Further, supervisors should "be willing to learn from everyone in the office. Therefore, they should be interested in breaking down the rigid and counterproductive separation between 'legal' staff and 'support' staff." 

Greenberg told me that the job announcement merely reflected his plan to apply the principles of "Japanese-style capitalism" to make Legal Aid more harmonious and productive. Some find it comical to hear Greenberg saying anything positive about capitalism. "What we are experiencing is something like a Stalinist atmosphere," says one attorney still working at Legal Aid. " If you don't agree with the new leadership, you are considered the enemy. And if you are a white, middle-class male, you are particularly in trouble." Lee Polsky, a highly respected former head of two divisions at Legal Aid, sent Greenberg a blistering letter calling the mass firings of supervisors a "mini- Cultural Revolution."

Shattering hierarchy has its risks. In September a paralegal on the society's staff, breaking down the distinctions between supervisors and underlings, took it upon herself to use Legal Aid stationery and privileged legal communications to smuggle into prison a memo encouraging a prisoner strike. An embarrassed Greenberg insisted the memo "wasn't authorized" by the society and forced the paralegal to resign.

Greenberg's zeal to transform Legal Aid's internal culture has compromised the organization's ability to represent its clients effectively. Among the more irrational personnel moves was the firing of Philip Weinstein, who ran one of the most highly regarded criminal appeals bureaus in the United States. The dismissal stimulated a protest letter to the New York Law Journal, signed by 120 Legal Aid lawyers. One of the rumored charges against Weinstein was that criminal appeals was too "elitist": it recruited lawyers on the basis of merit. Within a few months all of Weinstein's deputies had also left, unable to stomach an atmosphere that seemed to downgrade professionalism in favor of political correctness.

"We always ran the criminal appeals division in a totally non-ideological manner," said one ex-supervisor. "Our clients don't need the baggage of a lawyer's ideology. When we become confrontational with the courts, when we behave like minor revolutionaries, the cost will be paid not by the lawyers but by the clients." 

The consequences of valuing ideology over legal skill are already clear. In June, Greenberg received a letter from Francis T. Murphy, a presiding judge of the New York Supreme Court's Appellate Division. Murphy expressed "the court's concern" that there had been a 15 percent drop in the Legal Aid appeals bureau's completion of briefs between January and May. Seventy Legal Aid cases were in danger of dismissal because of delays in filing paperwork. Murphy added: "The delay in perfection of many of these appeals appears to be related to the recent reorganization undertaken by your office." 

While the radical legal services camp has won some impressive courtroom victories, it can't win elections. Inevitably, a counter-movement has started in the new Congress to slash funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation, which distributes money to over 300 local legal services organizations, including New York's Legal Aid Society. The House of Representatives has voted to cut Legal Services by a third, to $278 million.

Legal services advocates paint any critique of poverty-law doctrine as part of a Republican "war on the poor." In fact, in at least three vital areas, it is the Legal Aid Society that has been waging a destructive campaign against the interests of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers struggling valiantly to get out of poverty. Legal Aid has undermined efforts by the poor themselves to restore order to violence-plagued housing projects. It has helped create a special route to subsidized housing that bypasses the working poor. And it has endangered the safety of the law abiding poor by making it next to impossible to punish youthful criminals. The society has accomplished all this almost entirely with the taxpayers' money: 96 percent of its funds come from the city, state, and federal governments. 

Far from being a "war on the poor," opposition to Legal Aid is emerging within poor communities themselves. Tenant council leaders from New York City's public housing projects recently petitioned the court to intervene against Legal Aid in a case involving an attempt to expedite the procedures for evicting drug dealers.

The Escalara case, as it is known, is a textbook example of the clash between Legal Aid's ideology and the actual interests of the poor. It concerns a 1970 consent decree entered into by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and legal services groups. The decree, which reflected the new thinking of the time that justice for the poor could be won by the endless creation of new rights, set up a time consuming due-process maze to protect disruptive tenants who faced eviction. This proved to be one of the many 1960s experiments in liberation that didn't work out very well. By the late 1980s the crack epidemic and its attendant violence were wreaking havoc in the projects. The Escalara decree made it almost impossible to evict drug dealers.

NYCHA officials in the Dinkins administration recognized that the consent decree needed some modification. The city's district attorneys were already expediting evictions of drug dealers from other city-owned housing by using a late-nineteenth-century New York statute known as the Bawdy House Law, originally aimed at closing down speakeasies and brothels. The Housing Authority and tenant council leaders argued that a beleaguered community's safety should over ride the right of a drug dealer to a full-scale trial with almost endless appeals in an eviction case. No criminal sanctions are at issue, only the loss of a privilege provided by taxpayers.

Legal Aid, disregarding Lincoln's admonition to compromise, firmly opposed any modification in the consent decree. At that point, the politically centrist American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities (AARR) moved to join the case on behalf of the eight tenant councils' chairmen, who supported the NYCHA's position. 

Although the AARR has a long established interest in poor communities and has represented other tenant groups in public housing, Legal Aid looked upon the organization and the tenant council leaders as interlopers on its own turf. It forcefully objected to the motion to intervene. In an internal memo, the Legal Aid attorney handling the case accused the tenant council of wanting to deprive "tenants accused of drug-related offenses of even more rights (perhaps shooting them at dawn)."

The memo, addressed to Legal Aid's housing attorneys in all five boroughs, asked them to recruit tenants to oppose the AARR's motion. Lawyers were to look for tenants who had been sued in eviction procedures but who "have great mitigating circumstances (like I am innocent, my child did it and I did not know about it and tried to stop it)." The memo also asked the field attorneys to find a few tenants who would attest in affidavits that "there are better ways for NYCHA to oppose drugs (like for example: more cops on patrole [sic], more tenant patroles etc.)." The court has not yet ruled on the AARR's motion. 

The Escalara case starkly raises the question of who speaks for the interests of the poor—the elected tenant council leaders and their AARR attorneys, or the tenants involved in drug dealing who said "my child did it" and their Legal Aid lawyers. 

"In New York, Legal Aid has real problems in sit nations where the interests of the poor they are defending are in conflict with other poor," says AARR president Roger Conner. "In poor communities now, the gravest threats to social peace do not arise from misuse of public power but from the abuse of private power by other residents of these communities. Some legal services groups recognize this honestly and make explicit choices between competing groups of the poor. Others have been ostriches. We have to keep insisting that in troubled communities there is a war going on between the community builders the ministers, the teachers, the tenant leaders and, on the other side, the self indulgent and the outright criminal. In that war, organizations like Legal Aid have chosen the wrong side."

Homeless policy in New York has been decided not by elected representatives but in the courts by lawyers claiming to speak for the poor. As the Giuliani administration struggles to bring a modicum of rationality to the city's homeless policies, Legal Aid is fighting to the death any changes in those court-mandated policies. 

To describe it in a nutshell, the parade of court mandates entitling certain poor New Yorkers to housing started in 1981, when a Wall Street lawyer named Robert Hayes persuaded the state to concede that its Constitution requires government to provide all indigent homeless men (and later women) with shelter. Under the consent decree known as Callahan v. Carey, the state issued directives requiring the immediate placement of homeless men in barracks-style shelters.

With Callahan as a precedent, Legal Aid brought a class-action suit on behalf of the fictional class of homeless families—fictional because, as economist Randall Filer demonstrated, although the families in the city's shelter system came from unpleasant and crowded situations, almost none of them were really homeless in the sense of living on the streets ("What Really Causes Family Homelessness?" City Journal, Autumn 1990). Yet in a series of cases starting in 1983, Legal Aid was able to convince the court that the state Constitution required the city to provide immediate transitional housing—currently, a small apartment with private kitchen and bathroom to every family claiming it had no place to live. 

Legal Aid lawyers then argued successfully that "immediate placement" meant less than 24 hours after the family's arrival at the welfare office. Although the city could demonstrate the sheer physical impossibility of having enough housing in place to keep meeting the deadline, Judge Helen Freedman (a West Side liberal activist who lives in subsidized Mitchell-Lama housing) sentenced city officials to spend a night in the emergency shelter because of delays and ordered $5 million in fines to be paid directly to the homeless families that had been kept waiting. 

What was most outrageous about this set of decisions was that it encouraged the very homelessness that it was meant to cure. If a family was willing to declare itself homeless and go through the slight humiliation and occasional discomfort of living in a transitional apartment, it could immediately move to the head of a very long line of poor New Yorkers waiting for an apartment in the Housing Authority, or it could obtain a federal Section 8 voucher or an apartment in a rehabilitated city-owned building. This was truly a "field of dreams." The city built it and the people came. And then the city almost went broke. 

It is one of the more amazing episodes in the social welfare history of the United States that in the decade following Legal Aid's first homeless litigation, the City of New York built more housing for the homeless than all other large cities combined, more housing than the federal government provided for the entire country. The city spent over $1 billion building 26, 000 apartments for the so-called homeless. Complying with all the court orders now costs the city over $300 million per year, including the $35,000 it takes to keep a homeless family in the transitional housing system. 

"The litigation created a perverse system of priorities," says Nancy Wackstein, who, as Mayor David Dinkins's coordinator of homeless services, initially supported Legal Aid's approach. "I was in there advocating that homeless people should get services, and someone like [then housing commissioner Felice Michetti] would say that working people should get it. The fact that I had the litigation supported my position." 

Wackstein was not the only policy maker who had second thoughts. A 1992 commission headed by Andrew Cuomo, now an assistant secretary of housing and urban development, concluded that "placing thousands of homeless families, many of whom had only recently entered the shelter system, into permanent housing appears to have contributed to an enormous surge of families entering the system." Even the founding father of homeless litigation, Robert Hayes, eventually recognized that the consent decrees have had some perverse consequences.

The city, however, is stuck with its current policy unless it can persuade the courts to modify the decrees. To Legal Aid's Homeless Family Rights Project, those decrees are sacred. Steven Banks, Legal Aid's lead attorney, has been on the case for over 12 years and shows no signs of giving the city any breathing room. Indeed, he's seeking new contempt citations against city officials because some families have again had to wait more than one night before being placed in a transitional apartment—even though, in the waning days of the Cuomo administration, the state Department of Social Services amended its regulations to give the city up to 48 hours to place a homeless family. Banks has also bitterly fought the Giuliani administration's efforts to verify that families applying for permanent housing are truly homeless. 

It may be that what's driving Legal Aid's homeless litigation is an effort to find a legal hook for the radical goal of establishing a constitutional guarantee of taxpayer funded housing for all poor New Yorkers who demand it. When I asked Banks if this was his purpose, he declined to answer directly. He said he was just being a lawyer, making the best arguments he could on behalf of his clients.

Did he really believe, I asked, that the Constitution required the city to spend $35,000 per year for each homeless family? Banks conceded that putting it this way made it seem irrational, but he said the city had a much cheaper alternative. It could prevent homelessness altogether by providing families at risk of becoming homeless with a few hundred dollars a month in rent subsidies. Such an entitlement, however, would quickly expand far beyond the 5,000 families in the shelter system at any one time. Upward of 120,000 poor families in crowded housing could make an equally good case for subsidies no doubt supported by a Legal Aid brief.

To any student of social welfare history, this is reminiscent of the " crisis theory" of the 1960s welfare rights movement. Like the radical legal services lawyers who bombarded the courts with arguments for more and more welfare rights in the hope of forcing a universal entitlement, Legal Aid's lawyers push constitutional arguments for immediate shelter in the hope of securing massive new subsidies or perhaps even a universal right to housing. The welfare rights campaign led not to a guaranteed income but to popular disgust with welfare dependency and, eventually, to a political mandate for a very different sort of welfare reform. Legal Aid's homeless litigation seems headed for the same cul-de-sac. 

Nothing has blighted poor neighborhoods more than the plague of youth crime, which has left some of them scarcely habitable, and no single reform would do more to improve those communities than a radical overhaul of the juvenile justice system, too impotent to offer any deterrence. But such reform requires legislative action, and Legal Aid, a powerful presence in the State Legislature, has for years used its extensive Albany connections to block every reasonable proposal for juvenile justice reform.

Guardians of the most liberal position on juvenile justice, the Legal Aid Society's lawyers are true Albany insiders. Mickey Beller, Legal Aid's full- time Albany lobbyist for almost 20 years until he was dismissed as part of the recent purge, says, "Legal Aid was a major player in the system partly because of our expertise and partly because of our close relationships with major figures." Those figures include not only the recent speakers of the Assembly but also the chairmen of the powerful Codes Committee, which controls all criminal and juvenile justice legislation.

Beller's access to these top assemblymen was greased by the fact that most of their counsels were former Legal Aid attorneys. Beller recounts that he himself recommended Jim Yates, a Legal Aid litigator, to then-chairman Mel Miller as counsel of Codes. When Miller moved up to speaker, Yates went with him as counsel. Yates then brought in Fred Jacobs, another Legal Aid lawyer, as counsel to Codes. When Sheldon Silver rose from Codes chairman to Assembly speaker, Jacobs moved up as well, and he then brought in Jan Fink, another Legal Aid staff attorney, as the new Codes Committee counsel.

In cooperation with a coalition of children's advocates and members of the defense bar, Legal Aid has been able to persuade the Legislature to keep the juvenile justice system toothless. Year after year, the Assembly goes through the same public ritual on juvenile justice reform. Typically, the Codes Committee holds a hearing in which someone like Peter Reinharz, New York City's chief prosecutor for the juvenile court, makes a compelling case that the present system makes it impossible to hold youthful criminals accountable. Reinharz calls for some minimal changes in the law, such as fingerprinting youths under 16 who commit felonies, giving prosecutors the right to obtain arrest and search war rants (under current law juveniles may not be arrested in their homes), and giving judges more discretion in sentencing.

An official from Legal Aid's Juvenile Rights Division responds that fingerprinting, arrest warrants, and incarceration—all the standard tools of law enforcement—are inappropriate for children and don't work anyway. What does work, Legal Aid testifies, is "prevention, prevention, prevention"—meaning costly social programs of every kind, from Head Start to conflict resolution, midnight basketball to summer jobs.

Juvenile justice bills never get reported out of committee, and thus the Assembly has never even had a serious debate on the relative merits of social programs versus tougher law enforcement in curbing youth crime. An anecdote illustrates why. A New York City legislator with decent liberal credentials recalls a meeting of legislative leaders and staff in which someone broached the subject of reporting out some juvenile justice items, such as fingerprinting and arrest warrants. The suggestion drew a quick wave of dismissal from Fred Jacobs, counsel to the speaker and ex-Legal Aid lawyer, and the discussion was over.

Mayor Giuliani—an ex-prosecutor—should make reforming legal services a top priority in his effort to improve the city's quality of life. It is certain that under the leadership of Danny Greenberg, the Legal Aid Society will try even harder to obstruct the administration's efforts to restore order in poor communities and to bring the city's social welfare policies into balance with its resources. Greenberg has said his goal is to transform Legal Aid into a "Cravath for the poor"—a huge law firm that offers its clients a comprehensive package of legal services and that lobbies for their supposed class interests in the same way that the Wall Street firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore does for its corporate clients.

The mayor should stop spending the city's money on Greenberg's radical experiment. He can take two immediate steps to make it less likely that taxpayer-funded lawyers will derail policy changes that most New Yorkers support.

First, the mayor should use his prerogatives in city contracting to break up the Legal Aid Society. Legal Aid is unique in uniting under one roof all legal services for the poor—criminal defense, juvenile justice, family court representation, and civil litigation. Almost everywhere else these functions are separate, run by different organizations or by government departments. Giuliani should move immediately to bid a separate contract for each function. Nothing in the law requires one group to have a monopoly on legal services contracts. Legal Aid's size, its monopoly, and its huge budget that underwrites its lobbying have made it easier for the society to present itself falsely as the legal representative of all poor people.

Second, as the city lets new contracts for the different legal services, it should actively encourage applications from organizations with different perspectives on tire best interests of the poor. In the area of civil litigation, for instance, it would be constructive for the city to have an organization such as the AARR (which is now opening a New York office) taking cases that emphasize poor people's need for orderly communities. 

The city should also undertake a broad legal and political counterattack against the pernicious consent decrees and court mandates that have taken it so far down the road to bankruptcy and distorted its policy options. (See " Government by Decree: The High Cost of Letting Judges Make Policy," City Journal, Summer 1994.) With Legal Aid cut down to a more appropriate size, the city should be able to campaign more effectively in the Legislature for needed reforms in such areas as juvenile justice and homeless policy. 

Taking these steps will not mean the end of class-action suits like those in which Legal Aid has specialized. But if the city diversifies legal services, professional poverty lawyers will be less likely to convince courts and legislatures that they alone speak for the poor. Judges will hear different voices about the needs of poor communities. Some of the new legal services lawyers might go into court on behalf of the victims of cases like Escalara. No one would benefit more than the law-abiding poor. 


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

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