HLS Conference Celebrates 100 Years of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

Y. Kit Wu

Members of the present Harvard Legal Aid Bureau answer questions in a town hall meeting at the 100th HLAB aniversary. The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau has been providing legal services to low-income individuals free of charge for the past century.

The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau commemorated 100 years of service and debated possible avenues for the organization’s future at a conference at Harvard Law School this weekend.

Alums of the HLAB convened in the Law School’s Wasserstein Hall for most of the conference, which encompassed events spanning from a gala dinner and a cocktail party to panels discussing some of the issues within public interest law.

The Bureau is the oldest student-run, non-profit legal aid firm in the nation and provides welfare, family, wage, and housing services in order to combat economic disadvantage and poverty, according to the group’s mission statement. Lerae Kroon, the communications director at the Bureau, said that throughout its history the organization has served as a learning and service institution.

“It was really remarkable at the time that this group of law students from this very privileged school wanted to work on this particular issue,” Kroon said. “I think that’s sort of shaped how we’ve gone forward as an organization, and married the educational aspect…and serving the community itself.”

The anniversary celebration kicked off with a welcome reception on Friday evening, during which alumni and current members were able to connect and reflect on the firm’s rich history.

Panels commenced early Saturday morning, with topics ranging from representation in low-income communities to justice beyond legal services. A wide range of attendees, including both first-year law students and practicing professionals—contributed to the analysis of the challenges currently facing the legal field.

One of the panels focused on the need for clinical experience in the legal education system, debating the necessity of HLAB-style programs in elite learning institutions. While some attendees prioritized the Law Review experience as key in preparing young lawyers for work, most participants said they preferred the experience providing by working in the Bureau, which had given many of them their first taste of legal action.

“I spent two years on Harvard Legal Aid, and I think that it provided me with some of the most valuable skills that I use in private practice,” Michael L. Luskin ’73 said.

Fueled by the discussion amongst amongst a wide array of individuals who had worked in the legal field, the event underscored the positive impact the Bureau has had for the past century. The organizers of the event said they hope that the HLAB will continue its strong presence in the next 100 years.

Diane Downs, an HLAB alum, said that even though the the Bureau has to focus on “small cases” in order to be student run, its actions are important to the individuals they serve.

“It really wasn’t small for the person who got unemployment insurance benefits….[or] for the person who obtained disability in a back payment of ten years of fighting that disability,” Down said. “For our clients, it’s life-changing.”

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