National Legal Aid & Defender Association

The National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) is the oldest and largest national, nonprofit membership organization devoted to advocating equal justice for all Americans.[1] Established in 1911, the NLADA champions effective legal assistance for people who cannot afford counsel, serves as a collective voice for both civil legal services and public defense services throughout the nation and provides a wide range of services and benefits to its individual and organizational members.[2]

NLADA serves the legal aid community in two ways:

  1. serves as the leading national voice in public policy and legislative debates on the many issues affecting the equal justice community; and
  2. provides first-rate training, products and services to members.[3]



NLADA membership consists of two groups:

  1. Organizations providing direct service and support in the areas of civil legal aid and public defense.
  2. Individuals within and outside the equal justice community.


The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and its Equal Protection Clause provides Equal justice under law. Beginning in the late 1800s and throughout the early years of the 20th century, the American legal profession expressed its commitment to the concept of free legal assistance for poor people in the form of legal aid societies and bar association legal aid committees.

The first legal aid society, The German Society of New York, was founded in 1876 to protect German immigrants from exploitation. Subsequently, the agency's protection was extended to others and in 1890 it became the Legal Aid Society of New York.[4] In 1888, the Ethical Culture Society of Chicago established by the Bureau of Justice was the first agency to offer legal assistance to individuals regardless of nationality, race or gender. Other municipalities followed suit, and in the first decades of the 20th century most major cities had opened legal aid societies.[5]

In 1911, legal aid societies joined together to form the National Alliance of Legal Aid Societies. Arthur von Briesen of the Legal Aid Society of New York was the first president of the organization that became the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) in 1949.[6]

The concept of free legal assistance for the poor was promoted by the publication of Reginald Heber Smith's Justice and the Poor in 1919. Smith challenged the legal profession to consider it an obligation to see that access to justice was available to all, without regard to ability to pay. "Without equal access to the law," he wrote, "the system not only robs the poor of their only protection, but places in the hands of their oppressors the most powerful and ruthless weapon ever invented.[7]

As a result of Smith's book, the American Bar Association created the Special Committee on Legal Aid Work. By the middle of the 20th century, virtually every major metropolitan area had some kind of legal aid program. However, the system established was not suffice in meeting the needs of the poor and in the early 1960s a new model for legal services programs emerged. This new model was based on the philosophy that legal services should be a component of an overall anti-poverty effort. The Ford Foundation was one of the original supporters of this model.

Subsequently, in 1964 came the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, which launched the war on poverty and mandated federal funds to be allocated for the first time to fund legal services to the poor. However, this law did not specifically provide for legal services and it took many years and attempts to finally devise a federal construct to support legal aid for the low-income community. After years of research and advocacy, the Legal Services Corporation Act was enacted in 1974 by President Richard Nixon. This program flourished and has evolved over the years to become the organization nationally recognized as the Legal Services Corporation.

Over the years legal aid has evolved into a comprehensive program that provides legal assistance to low-income people regardless of race, ethnicity or gender. NLADA is the only national membership organization devoted exclusively to ensuring high quality legal representation for individuals who cannot afford an attorney.

NLADA is the nation's leading advocate for front-line attorneys and other equal justice professionals ― those who make a difference in the lives of low-income clients and their families and communities. Representing legal aid and defender programs, as well as individual advocates, NLADA is proud to be the oldest and largest national, nonprofit membership association devoting 100 percent of its resources to serving the broad equal justice community.

NLADA serves the equal justice community in two major ways: providing first-rate products and services and as a leading national voice in public policy and legislative debates on the many issues affecting the equal justice community. NLADA also serves as a resource for those seeking more information on equal justice in the United States.

Civil legal aid

  • Civil legal aid refers to the free legal services provided by thousands of attorneys who work through local legal aid offices to help millions of low-income people gain access to justice.
  • Civil legal aid helps low-income people resolve urgent, non-criminal legal problems that make a difference in their everyday lives, such as protecting the elderly from unlawful evictions, making sure women and children are protected from violence in their homes, and helping veterans receive the financial benefits they have earned and need.

Funding of civil legal aid

  • Civil legal aid programs are state-based or community-based organizations funded in a variety of ways. Some receive grants from the United States Congress each year through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The LSC is a private, nonprofit organization established by Congress to ensure equal access to justice under the law by providing legal assistance in civil (non-criminal) matters to low-income individuals.
  • Most federally funded civil legal aid programs also receive support from other sources, including individual donors, foundations, businesses, United Way contributions, state bar foundations and state and local governments.
  • Many civil legal aid programs do not receive any federal funds and are completely reliant on private donations and state and local government funding.
  • Many programs now rely on funds provided through Interest on lawyer trust accounts (IOLTA). These accounts are funded through interest accrued on legal trust accounts, which consist of legal fees placed in escrow.
  • Even IOLTA funds are not safe from legal aid opponents, who have argued that the accounts are not voluntary, opt-in programs for legal clients. They have used this argument as the basis of legal challenges to IOLTA. If these challenges are successful, millions of dollars in funding will be taken away from legal aid programs across the country.

Client group

  • Clients of civil legal aid represent the diversity that is America — encompassing all races, ethnic groups and ages, ranging from veterans and family farmers to the urban low-wage workers and victims of natural disasters.
  • Civil legal aid attorneys handle millions of cases each year, helping the more than 40 million people in this country living at or below the poverty level. Federal funds are used in approximately 1.5 million of these cases.
  • More than two-thirds of civil legal aid clients are women, and most of them are mothers. Because of this, the legal problems of people living in poverty can have serious implications for children.
  • In 1996, civil legal aid programs across the country handled more than 50,000 cases in which the primary issue was protection from domestic abuse and violence.


  • Despite relatively prosperous times, more than 35 million Americans are still living below the poverty level, and another 10 million have incomes that are less than 25 percent higher than that level. As a result, roughly one in five U.S. citizens is eligible for federally funded legal services.
  • The need for legal services among the poor is overwhelming. According to a 1994 study conducted by the American Bar Association, at least 40 percent of low- and moderate-income households experience a legal problem each year.
  • Most low- and moderate-income people feel shut out from the legal system. They do not turn to the courts for solutions because they believe the system will not help them.
  • Civil legal aid ensures justice for all Americans, regardless of their income. Many people would otherwise not be able to afford access to the courts to resolve their legal troubles.
  • The American Bar Association has estimated that despite serving 1.9 million clients in 1997, the collective civil legal aid effort is meeting only about 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income people.


  1. ^ "Legal Aid Societies," MSN Encantra, [1]. Archived 2009-11-01.
  2. ^ "National Legal Aid & Defender Association," The Crime Report
  3. ^ "National Legal Aid & Defender Association(NLADA)," All Business
  4. ^ "The History of the Legal Aid Society," The Legal Aid Society,
  5. ^ "Ethical Culture and the Ongoing Quest for Social Justice," The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, NJ, [2]
  6. ^ "WOULD KEEP LAW AND CHARITY APART; Legal Aid Society Refuses to Amalgamate with the Charities Conference," New York Times, [3], November 16, 1912
  7. ^ Justice and the Poor, Reginald Heber Smith, 1919

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