The LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF CLEVELAND, incorporated on May 12, 1905, was the fifth society in the United States organized, according to its charter, "to render legal assistance gratuitously or for a moderate charge to deserving persons not otherwise able to obtain the services of a competent attorney, and to promote measures for their protection." Praised as an innovative program by proponents of legal aid at various points in its history, the Cleveland organization was nevertheless typical of such societies, evolving from an agency for social control to one advocating social change in the 1960s.
Two attorneys offering legal services to the poor through different agencies, Arthur D. Baldwin with the CLEVELAND DAY NURSERY AND FREE KINDERGARTEN ASSOCIATION and ISADOR GROSSMAN with B'NAI B'RITH, joined forces to form the Legal Aid Society. Supported by private donations and later by the COMMUNITY FUND, the Legal Aid Society contracted with a specific lawyer or firm to provide legal services for the indigent. Grossman was the society's first attorney (1905-12), followed by Robb Bartholomew (1914-18), and the firm of Charles E. Clark & J. Milton Costello (1918-58). Probate Judge ALEXANDER HADDEN served as president of the society's board of directors until 1920 and as honorary president until 1926. The Society represented 456 clients in its first full year of operation. Judge MANUEL V. LEVINE, a trustee of Legal Aid Society for 32 years, facilitated the creation of the state's first municipal court in 1910, a historical step that ended the exploitation of poor people by township justices of the peace who freely ranged into Cleveland since the city lacked a court of its own. The Society also secured the passage of a bill that led to the creation of the nation's first small claims court in 1913.
The Society's decision to end its practice of retaining outside lawyers and to establish its own Civil and Criminal divisions in the early 1960s proved highly controversial among judges and private attorneys, who unsuccessfully challenged it in court. The society expanded its services greatly in the late 1960s with federal antipoverty funds from the Office of Economic Opportunity. Under the leadership of Burt W. Griffin, who later became Common Pleas Court judge, Legal Aid used a $160,000 grant to establish five offices in low-income neighborhoods of Cleveland in 1966 and increased its legal staff from 16 in 1966 to 66 in 1970, when it served 30,000 people. Following the passage of the state's Public Defender Law in 1976, the county took over much of the public defender services which had been provided by the society. Despite national political criticism of legal aid policies and budgetary uncertainties, the Cleveland society continued to expand the scope of its operations. By 1978, its Civil Division included a Family Law Unit, an Older Persons Unit, and a program which operated two group homes for persons released from state mental hospitals after long-term commitments. Its Legal Reform Section filed class action suits and test cases on a variety of issues, and two other programs provided assistance and support to community organizations.
In 1979, the Legal Aid Society moved into a renovated factory at 1223 West 6th Street in the WAREHOUSE DISTRICT. National budget cuts in 1981 and 1982 forced it to close offices, reduce staff, and turn away clients. In 1983, the Bar Association of Greater Cleveland began to urge its members to volunteer for Legal Aid or provide financial support for its work. In 1993, the society sought pro bono staff time from large local law firms: participating firms included SQUIRE, SANDERS AND DEMPSEY, THOMPSON, HINE & FLORY, and Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff. The society handled 11,097 cases in 2009, closing 7,409 of them. As of 2011, Colleen M. Cotter served as Legal Aid's executive director. The society had 55 staff attorneys, 90 staff members, and 1,400 volunteer lawyers, and operated three offices for clients in Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, and Lorain counties.