The Legal Aid Society, over much of its 120-year history, gained a distinguished reputation for representing indigent clients. But in recent years the organization has strayed from its core brief and has become a dogged—and effective—commando force for the expansion of the welfare state.
In so doing, Legal Aid diverts resources from the defense of impoverished suspects to a politicized struggle, through class-action lawsuits, for greater entitlements for broad groups of non-defendants: inmates, homeless folks, and public-aid recipients. And what is beginning to irk at least some members of the city's legal establishment is that the society's class-action machine is bankrolled by the city's richest law firms, which make annual tax-deductible contributions that can top $100,000 each, while the rest of us pick up the final tab in the form of increased taxes.
Legal Aid has argued for an increase in the basic welfare grant; succeeded in forcing the city to provide housing on demand, without proof of need; and fought against the workfare requirements of last year's federal welfare-reform law. Today, Legal Aid is stalling a sorely needed provision of the modest rent-control reform that requires tenants to pay rent into an escrow account while pursuing complaints against their landlords. Recently, too, the society took the side of two welfare recipients who wanted to skip mandatory electronic fingerprinting because of a bizarre professed belief that it would "put the mark of the devil" on them.
At last, one big-time lawyer, Francis Menton Jr.—a partner at prosperous and prestigious Wilkie, Farr & Gallagher—has begun agitating for an end to his colleagues' misguided generosity. Speaking to an audience of leading lawyers in December, Menton (who once enthusiastically supported Legal Aid) said that funding Legal Aid's class actions "makes it so that you well-connected millionaires can trump democracy and force the working class to pay for your favorite charities." Most partners in the big firms probably don't sympathize with Legal Aid's politics, though: the firms give because they have always given, since the days before Legal Aid became radicalized, and because by giving they get bragging rights about the size of their pro bono contribution.
Gadflies like Menton won't find it easy to defund Legal Aid's class actions. But by attacking the organization's efforts in this area, he may begin to embarrass the society enough so that it returns to its noble criminal-defense roots.