Chartered in 1966, CLS has become widely recognized as one of the largest, most experienced, and most respected legal services programs in the nation.
In 1964, a young Philadelphia lawyer named William R. Klaus participated in a Philadelphia Bar Association study on the needs of the poor. For the first time, he was exposed to Philadelphia neighborhoods in need. “Gathering the information for the report for the Bar was an eye-opener, being led through North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia and West Philadelphia . . . and seeing life as it really was,” Mr. Klaus recounted. “I hardly knew about life in those communities.”
Advocacy for the poor became Klaus’ obsession, the focus of his passion and enthusiasm. At that time, he was in private practice, but dedicated every spare moment to law in the public interest. His work on the Bar Association report, Law and the War on Poverty in Philadelphia, paved the way for the birth of Community Legal Services (CLS) and the legal services movement.
Klaus’ vision was to unleash an organization in service to the poor, providing low-income communities with access to the same legal resources as people of means. The Honorable Raymond Pace Alexander, the first African-American judge to sit on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, presided over the case affirming CLS’ charter in 1966. Judge Alexander shared Klaus’s vision. In Judge Alexander’s words:
“… Philadelphia lawyers have overwhelmingly accepted the challenge that this opportunity affords in another area in the life of the poor to relieve the burden under which nearly a fifth of American families suffer…. As consumers of injustice, legal, social and economic injustice, the poor can hardly be denied the varied assistance of the profession. With a commitment to the war on poverty, if it be a serious commitment, must come the commitment of the best of professional talents and their full range…It is in the public interest that this program go forward.”
According to Klaus, Judge Alexander’s opinion “set the stage for a great legal show.” CLS was founded, under Klaus’ leadership, with strong ties to the community and participation from neighborhood people and organizations, including neighborhood churches. Branch offices were opened in South Philadelphia, West Philadelphia and Center City initially. The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University supplied a cadre of dedicated activist-lawyers, many of whom still work in the public interest.
Beyond playing a key role in establishing legal services for the poor in Philadelphia, Bill Klaus was instrumental in ensuring the viability of legal services nationwide. As a member of the Bar committee that interfaced with Congress, Klaus wrote the act that established the Legal Services Corporation, which provides federal funding to many legal services organizations. In addition, Klaus was a member of the “Flying Squad,” a team of lawyers that would descend on certain cities to establish legal services.
Of the many lawyers who have worked with CLS over the years, some of whom now serve in leadership positions in the City of Philadelphia, Klaus said, “They leave with heightened sensitivity. They all become leaders. Some are teaching at [major universities]. They are highly respected advocates, top lawyers that ensure finding volunteers, so that the network spreads.”
A corporate lawyer with a social conscience, Klaus observed of his work spanning radically divergent realms, “I always felt as if I had each foot in a different world. It wasn’t hard for me to flip back and forth between worlds, but I always felt I was missing something.” William R. Klaus, lawyer-statesman, CLS founder and leading advocate for the legal services movement, leaves behind a legacy of enriching the lives of thousands through his commitment to public service.
Over the years, Community Legal Services has made access to justice available to hundreds of thousands of low-income Philadelphians – the elderly, mothers and children, the disabled, ex-offenders, and many others who otherwise would not be able to afford legal assistance. William R. Klaus joined with many extraordinary individuals from a broad range of backgrounds to launch what has become a crucial Philadelphia institution. Every day, CLS works to realize his vision – fair treatment under the law for everyone.