At the age of 82, Cahn has lost none of his energy and zeal after five decades of fighting against poverty and for equality. He believes the work of a lawyer is a ‘calling to be the servant of justice’. In 1964, he co-authored, with his wife Jean Camper Cahn, a highly influential article, ‘The war on poverty: a civilian perspective’ ((1964) 73 Yale LJ 1317). The article inspired the creation of the Legal Services Program (LSP), the forerunner of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which runs federal government-funded civil legal aid services in the US.
After graduating from law school, Cahn was hired as special counsel and speech writer to Robert Kennedy, who was then attorney general. Modestly, Cahn said he got the job because prior to studying law he’d been awarded a PhD in English and Kennedy thought this meant he ‘might be able to write a speech’.
In 1964, he began work in the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which had been created as part of the ‘war on poverty’ initiative led by President Lyndon B Johnson. Jean Cahn was involved in a programme funded by the Ford Foundation that provided legal services to impoverished communities. This provided the practical experience to inform the article, which argued that legal services to the poor should be provided by neighbourhood lawyers based in the communities they serve.
According to Edgar Cahn, ‘Robert Kennedy supported what they were arguing for in the article.’ Once established, Cahn said, the LSP grew from an initial budget of ‘$5m to $300m by the end of the war on poverty initiative’. He believes that his and Jean’s success in securing the early support of Lewis F Powell, the then president of the American Bar Association, was crucial in getting lawyers to support the programme. In the first nine months, 130 new programmes were established across the country and many of these enjoyed the support of state and local Bar associations.
At the end of the 1960s, the legislation that had underpinned the programme was due to expire. This could have led to the end of civil legal aid in the US, but a political consensus emerged in Congress about the need to continue the services, which eventually led to the establishment of the LSC in 1974.
Today, the LSC has a budget of $375m. This pays for 134 programmes that work out of 800 separate offices across the country. The corporation estimates that 64m Americans qualify for help under the programmes, but it cannot meet the demand for services and continues to press Congress for a substantial increase in its grant (it submitted a budget request of just over $500m for the current financial year).
Neighbourhood legal services have faced threats over the years, but Cahn believes the client voice has been crucial to their survival. Congress requires a third of the board membership running each service locally to be made up of clients. Cahn argues it is important that clients are encouraged to be the public voice of legal aid services. ‘They can say we are speaking up for a constituency of support that votes,’ he says, as unfortunately there is the perception that ‘all lawyers want are pay cheques.'