For more than forty years Christian Legal Society (CLS) has been vitally concerned with advancing the biblical call to "Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" (Psalms 82:3-4). We set forth below a brief history of CLS' Christian Legal Aid ministry.
The Beginnings of Christian Legal Aid
It all started with four challenging words uttered by a church youth to a startled Chicago real estate lawyer in the year 1973. “You're a lawyer but you can’t help my brother? What good are you!” were the angry words that started Chuck Hogren thinking about whether he was any good if he couldn’t help the brother who was being falsely charged with criminal acts. The place was the recreational pool hall in the basement of the LaSalle Street Church frequented by many low-income youths who resided at the nearby huge Cabrini Green housing district. With these piercing words still ringing in his ears, Chuck, a young real estate attorney, accepted a challenge posed by Pastor Bill Leslie that if he could raise the funds to support Chuck for one year, Chuck would begin a free legal aid clinic to help the residents of the housing project. Those few words uttered by an unknown teenager were God’s way of planting the seeds which blossomed into the largest Christian legal aid effort in the history of the United States.
“What have I done”? Chuck thought as he hung up the phone. “I really don’t want to leave my real estate practice but I made a commitment to my pastor” he mused. Several weeks after agreeing to start, Chuck began to see clients in an office furnished by the church. He was aptly described at that time in a book about him as “The Reluctant Defender.” Immersing himself in issues of criminal law and defense, Chuck began assisting primarily young black males against criminal charges. One of his early cases involved successfully assisting a young black man wrongfully accused of a robbery as a result of a mistaken identity. In a short time Chuck found a full load of work to keep him occupied. The year passed but he never looked back at that real estate practice which he earlier had so expectantly started. What began as a one-year experiment became Chuck’s career and passion for 26 years as he developed and shared widely the principles of conducting an organized Christian Legal Aid program.
After Chuck agreed to serve as the director of the to-be established Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic, little did Chuck or Pastor Leslie know or envision that this modest church sponsored start would grow and develop into such a large program meeting the needs of desperate poverty areas in one of the nation’s largest cities; and also that it would inspire and become a “lighthouse” for others in establishing many other community based legal aid programs utilizing the efforts of Christian lawyers and law students around the country.
In the 1970s, many Christian lawyers had been involved in applying biblical principles of conciliation and of ministry to the poor in their private law practices. The first known organized effort to develop a Christian conciliation service started in the late 1970s when Fred Cassidy organized a panel of volunteer Christian lawyers and laymen in Los Angeles to begin to conciliate disputes between and among Christians and Christian organizations. On the legal aid front, the Cabrini-Green Legal Aid Clinic headed by Chuck Hogren seems to have been the first formally organized Christian legal aid effort serving a particular area involving the use of full-time lawyers and volunteers in meeting both the legal and spiritual needs of the poor.
The early 1980s witnessed the gathering of volunteer lawyers and laymen led by Laurie Eck in Albuquerque, New Mexico known as the Christian Conciliation Service. Stunned by research which showed that a large number of persons who claimed to be Christians in New Mexico were involved in litigation and often with other Christians, the program was organized with several full-time staff members. It recruited and trained many Christian lawyers, pastors, law students and laymen throughout the area to follow the principles of biblical dispute resolution.
The Christian Conciliation Service and CLS promoted the organizing of other services modeled after the Los Angeles and Albuquerque experiments at annual CLS meetings and numerous field trips to communities in various portions of the United States. The mixed results were many people being helped, but many poorly financed Christian conciliation services were struggling to survive. In other words, God was teaching his servants in big and small ways how to pursue peacemaking ministries over time.
On the legal aid side, organized programs chiefly involving civil services were established during this period in a number of locations including Chicago (Austin Christian Legal Clinic), Boston, Mississippi, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York Chattanooga, TN, and Honolulu. Ministering in the name of Christ, Christian lawyers and law students provided assistance to the poor and homeless with both staff and volunteers in many areas. The Honolulu and Chattanooga programs shared Christ with many of the needy and pioneered in the use of low cost programs conducted entirely or almost entirely by volunteers.
In 1983, CLS established a pace-setting pilot project in Albuquerque that aimed at experimenting with a wider variety of features than had been the case for many of the other individual programs. Known as the Christian Legal Aid and Referral Service, it combined both legal and spiritual advice, shared the gospel, linked legal aid and conciliation services closely together (although they remained organizationally separate), developed a fairly intensive training program for volunteers involving secular, spiritual and biblical aspects of the Christian practice of law, and provided fellowship and personal spiritual growth training courses and programs ministering to the volunteers and to their families. During the mid to late 80's CLS established a national promotion program for both Christian conciliation and Christian legal aid, retained a full-time staff person, Alice Curtis (now a Professor of Law at Regent law School) to encourage, network, coordinate and assist in sponsoring meetings and training sessions at annual CLS meetings and at other locations. As a result of these efforts, there was a substantial expansion to approximately 20 Christian conciliation services and some expansion in the number of Christian legal aid services. However, both the conciliation services and the legal aid services, proved difficult to finance and began to falter or go out of existence during the late 80's for three basic reasons: lack of trained leadership, lack of financial resources and lack of consistent volunteers.
The late 20th Century
By the early 1990s, CLS involvement in programs of Christian conciliation and legal aid were reduced by each of these factors, but CLS continued training and recruiting volunteers for each type of service. An attorney in Albuquerque, NM named John D. Robb, Jr., now affectionately referred to as the "Godfather" of Christian Legal Aid, took the concept on the road and inspired attorneys across the country to establish CLA clinics providing pro bono legal services to the poor. For more than three decades John spread the message of Christian Legal Aid and trained hundreds of attorneys in providing legal assistance in the name of Christ.
CLS spun off its conciliation ministries to the Association of Christian Conciliation Services that ultimately became primarily known as Peacemaker Ministries. CLS limited its role to mainly that of vital support and encouragement of the conciliation process and services and of encouraging Christian lawyers and law students to become "peacemakers" as well as generously lending its publications, its annual conferences and other assistance to the Christian Conciliation Movement. In 1993, under the maturing leadership of Peacemaker Ministries and other organizations, the Christian conciliation movement again began to expand. Peacemaker Ministries developed sets of principles, training courses, manuals and other ways to recruit, strengthen and enlarge the Christian conciliation services in this country. This work included working with national corporations their officers, employees and members to promote and increase the acceptance of Christian conciliation methods and procedures for individuals and, among churches and Christian organizations (and even among some commercial entities.
The period 1995 to early 1998 witnessed a CLS renewal and "rebirth" of expanded interest and commitment to Christian legal aid and conciliation. The Peacemaker Ministries staff doubled in size under the leadership of Ken Sande and Gary Friesen. In May 1996, CLS Board of Directors entered into a strategic partnership with Peacemaker Ministries and adopted the "Peacemakers Pledge." In May 1997, the CLS Board adopted its strategic five-year Christian legal aid plan. Since 1997, the CLS has trained over 500 volunteers in its national and local Christian Legal Aid Training Programs and started over 30 Christian legal aid projects in over twenty cities. During that same period, hundreds of CLS members have been trained by Peacemaker Ministries to use peacemaking principles in their own lives and their client counseling, as well as utilizing fervent prayer and the Rules of the Institute of Christian Conciliation to guide their out-of-court mediation and arbitration practices.
The five year Christian legal aid plan (May 1997-May 2002) included an initial three-year development period for encouraging, and helping local communities to start up and develop pilots of various kinds of services which can then be turned into models and expanded rapidly during the fourth and fifth years. This initial phase involved the establishment and implementation of extensive field assistance and training for Christian lawyers, law students, paralegals and lay persons and the establishment of between 20 and 40 Christian legal aid projects and a corps of not less than 500 fully trained Christian legal aid volunteers.
Initial steps taken in 1997 and early 1998, included (1) the appointment of John Robb to serve as a volunteer part-time director of Legal Aid ministries; (2) the study and adoption by CLS' Legal Aid Ministries Committee of a comprehensive set of biblical and practical bases, instructions, ingredients, purposes, definitions and guidelines on how to organize and conduct Christian legal aid services; and (3) the preparation of promotional and motivational materials, including a detailed General Manual for running a program, a more specific, step-by-step Training Manual, and a Guide for Christian lawyers, law students and paralegals serving as Christians in the general practice of law and as legal aid volunteers.
In 1998, CLS entered into a strategic partnership with the International Union of Gospel Missions to establish Christian legal aid programs in seven pilot cities, using volunteer Christian lawyers, law students and paralegals who are supplied and trained by the Christian legal community in each locality, to address the legal and spiritual needs (including evangelism) of persons served by rescue/gospel missions. The pilot programs, drawing upon the long experience of other Christian legal aid programs, but striving to experiment with, test and evaluate state of the art and high tech ways to greatly improve and expand ways to more effectively bring legal and spiritual help to the needy, have been generally successful and many people have been helped, including the volunteer lawyers whose voluntary sacrificial efforts have been rewarded by renewed spiritual lives.
For legal aid, neither the legal nor the spiritual problems of the needy nor attempts to rescue them generally from their poverty, are even beginning to be adequately met despite the above ambitious CLS plans. Christian lawyers, law students and paralegals are uniquely able to address these combined legal and spiritual needs, but they lack the manpower to do so. The first two decades of this century have seen not only an expansion of the number and the scope of services, but also innovative ways to leverage or sharply increase these scarce resources in various ways. In 2020, there are currently 60 Christian Legal Aid programs around the country serving in over 130 local communities.