The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, incorporated by city leaders as the Legal Aid Society of Albany in 1923, is one of the oldest legal services organizations in the United States.
The first attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Albany was Ruth Miner, who worked part-time for $50 per month. When asked why she sought judgment in cases involving as little as one dollar, Miner replied, “Justice is not measured by the amount of money: Justice is an idea”. She remained active with the Legal Aid Society for decades, serving on the Board of Directors into the 1960s.
Ruth Miner, Legal Aid’s first attorney (9th from left) at the National Meeting of Legal Aid Attorneys in 1930.
What else happened in 1923?
• US Attorney General says women may wear trousers.
• First nonstop transcontinental flight: New York City to San Diego.
• Disney Company founded.
• Cecil B. DeMille debuts the first version of “The Ten Commandments.”
• New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig hits the first of his 493 home runs.
Arthur J. Harvey became the Society’s next attorney in 1934, often handling 1,000 matters a year. He believed that everyone deserved representation, regardless of their situation in life. When he died in March 1986, his obituary read, “Harvey was a member, chief counsel, secretary, president and board member of the Legal Aid Society” from 1930 until his death in 1986, all the while working for low income people.
The Dynamic Trio: the first three directors of the Legal Aid Society in Albany, who led the organization from its inception to 1983: Lawrence Klepper became director in 1966; Ruth Miner took the helm in 1923; and Arthur Harvey served the longest, starting in 1942.
1936 saw some firsts: the first LAS clinic, staffed by Albany Law School students, provided legal services to our clients.
And the first legislative advocacy: a bill sponsored by the LAS to protect against unfair garnishment of wages.
The next year, the formal attorney referral process began with the Albany County Bar Association.
The 1940s were busy: LAS saw an increase in clients who were World War II Veterans. The caseload of 1120 was the highest ever. In addition, we were consulted in about 180 more cases by war agencies. From the 1944 annual report: “Our Society this year could almost call itself a war agency. Approximately 75% of our time and work is connected with the war effort.”
Then, in 1947 Arthur Harvey successfully defended activist singer Paul Robeson’s right to perform at Philip Livingston School when the Albany Board of Education attempted to block the performance.
In 1966, the Economic Opportunity Act expanded federal funding and Legal Aid Society becomes one of the earliest beneficiaries. Also, Lawrence Klepper becomes Director of LAS of Albany, with four attorneys on staff.
As federal funding expanded, so did the Legal Aid Society. By 1970, The Legal Aid Society had branch offices in Cohoes and Watervliet. LAS was a beneficiary of the Legal Service Corporation Act, passed by Congress in 1974 to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it. By 1978 LAS had 11 full time attorneys, 9 paralegals and 8 law students and offices in Albany and Cohoes; and funded LAS in Schenectady and Troy. North Country Legal services opened in Canton and Plattsburgh.
In the early 1980s, Troy and Schenectady staff move to Albany office, and the Legal Aid Society of Albany becomes regional provider and is renamed Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, growing to 19 attorneys and 21 staff. The Saratoga Springs office opened.
New Saratoga Springs attorneys in 1981: Edward Lindner, Mary Withington, V. Jerome Luhn.
Mary is still an attorney there today.
In 1983, Lawrence Klepper fires himself to save the organization in face of funding cuts, and Joel Spitzer becomes Acting Director. In the next two years, Denison Ray becomes Executive director and signs the first Union Contract with LAS staff.
The 1990s saw Lillian Moy becoming Executive Director.
In 1996 LASNNY adds Columbia and Greene counties when Mid-Hudson Legal Services closes.
In 2002, LASNNY headquarters moved into its current fully accessible offices at 55 Colvin Avenue in Albany. Two years later, LASNNY merged with North Country Legal Services, providing services to Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton and St. Lawrence counties, and also assumed responsibility for Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties, formerly part of Legal Aid Society of Mid New York. Wendy Wahlberg and Peter Racette assumed Deputy Directorships. Also that year, the Justice for All Annual Campaign was launched by leaders of area law firms; E. Stewart Jones, Jr. and Arthur Siegel.
Through the years, aggressive fundraising and grant writing helped establish and maintain a vigorous program of high quality civil legal aid. We now serve a 16-county service area in northeastern New York: Albany, Clinton, Columbia, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Greene, Hamilton, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, St. Lawrence, Warren and Washington. The Legal Aid Society has offices in Albany, Amsterdam, Canton, Plattsburgh and Saratoga Springs.
Click here to see the 85th Anniversary history article.