The New Philadelphia Lawyer

ROBERT D. ABRAHAMS has been in active law practice since his graduation from Dickinson School of Law at the age of nineteen, and at present is Chief Counsel of the Legal Aid Society of Philadelphia. He founded the Neighborhood Law Office Plan and is a member of the Hoard of the Legal Reference Plan of the Philadelphia Par Association. The article which follows is drawn from a report Mr. Abrahams wrote for the Survey of the Legal Profession. Out of court, Mr. Abrahams has had three novels published, the latest being Mr. Benjamin’s Sword, which is based on the life of Judah P. Benjamin.


THE Philadelphia Neighborhood Law Office plan, begun in 1939, tries to bring competent lawyers to householders in the middle income group — people who ordinarily do not consult lawyers at all. The Plan gives such people legal advice at rates which they can afford, and aims to prevent rather than to encourage litigation.

To accomplish the Plan’s purpose, it was necessary to have its standards supervised by lawyers who had no financial interest in its success; to interest practicing lawyers in participating; to protect such lawyers from attack by members of the Bar who did not approve of the Plan; and to inform the public where, how, and at what cost the service offered could be secured.

All this was undertaken in 1938 by the Neighbothood Law Office Committee of the Philadelphia Chapter, National Lawyers Guild. The hapter is a bar association chartered under Pennsylvania law.

It is heartening to those who made the fight for a legal service experiment in Philadelphia to know how far forward the Philadelphia Bar Association has moved during a decade, for the Association is now sponsoring a Bar Reference Plan. The fact of such sponsorship is a measure of the greatly awakened interest of the organized Bar in legal service for the middle income group.

More than 4000 clients annually

The Neighborhood Law Office Plan is now in itls twelfth year, and at present the twelve offices functioning under it in Philadelphia are serving more than 4300 clients annually. The Plan operates without subsidy and with fair profit to most of the participating lawyers. Clients are being served so satisfactorily that not one complaint has been filed against any participating lawyer by any client, either with the Neighborhood Law Office Committee or with the disciplinary authorities of the local Bar. The participants are not required to be members of the Lawyers Guild or any other bar association.

Preventive law for the average man

All the offices are required to keep uniform records and furnish these monthly to the Committee. The Committee is given access to all the records of the offices but is not permitted to extract names and addresses from the files. The monthly record sheets now lodged with the Committee number more than 2500 and are a valuable source of information on the practice of law in urban neighborhoods.

The Committee formulated certain maxims of practice which were and are recommended to the attention of the participants. These maxims are: —

1. Preventive law is to justice what preventive medicine is to health.

2. It is the dignity of the client, not that of the lawyer, which counts.

3. The lawyer should not be remote from his client either in geography or understanding.

4. The lawyer who makes a mystery of his fees makes a critic of his client.

No criminal cases are served under the Plan since preventive work in criminal law is sociological rather than legal. The practice of criminal law in Philadelphia is a specialty, largely concentrated among a few practitioners, and is by its very nature almost exclusively litigation.

From the beginning, the Plan has been successful. The experiment began on November 1, 1939, and was to continue for eighteen months. During the experimental period, 82.4 per cent of those who came to the offices staled that never before had they entered a law office, whether a Legal Aid office or that of a private attorney. A very large percentage of the clients came for preventive advice rather than for litigation. Less than 5 per cent of the clients had matters involving litigation. Less than 2 per cent actually litigated. Those served consisted of a true cross-section of householders in the middle income group. There were schoolteachers, clergymen, day laborers, skilled laborers, civil service employees, and (at one office only) farmers.

A spot check of one hundred clients, among the 82.4 per cent who had never before gone to a law office, disclosed that most of these persons would have gone to a real-estate man, notary public, local politician, or banker for advice if the Neighborhood Law Offices had not been there.

The following tabulation is a breakdown as to the type of case served in the same period.

Per cent
Domestic Advice 14.0
Contract 13.0
Landlord and Tenant 9.0
Real Estate 9.0
Collection 8.5
Wills 0.7
Negligence 5.0
Financial and Employment Aid 4.0
Support. 3.5
Criminal (incidental to civil litigation) 2.3
Custody of Children 2.3
Decedent Estates 2.3
Personal Property 2.0
Insurance 1.7
Workmen's Compensation. 1.7
Neighborhood Quarrels 1.0
Insolvency .5
Wages .5
Miscellaneous 13.0

The 82.4 per cent figure for persons who said they had never before consulted a lawyer remained constant, never varying more than 1 or 2 per cent during any year, provided that repeat clients were removed from statistical consideration. The figures for occupation and type of case served have also remained close to the original compilation, with no significant changes except during the war period, when the percentage of contract cases fell sharply and the percentage of domestic advice matters rose.

The supervising committee

The Neighborhood Law Office Committee acts as supervisor for the group. No member of the Committee may participate in any of the offices or have any financial connection with them.

All publicity for the Plan is handled by the Committee, and none by the participants is permitted. A weekly release is issued to a score of neighborhood newspapers, giving an informative paragraph or two concerning new or interesting developments in the law. The newspaper publishes this column without charge to the Committee.

A joint radio program is presented weekly over a

local station (without charge by the station) by the Neighborhood Law Office Committee and the Philadelphia County Medical Society. The Neighbor hood Law Office pertion consists of questions and answers of a general legal nature. The Medical Society presents parallel medical material.

In addition the members of the Speakers Committee address local organizations on the purpose and scope of the Neighborhood Plan. In none of the publicity are the names of the participants mentioned, nor are the office addresses given, although the neighborhoods in which the offices operate are often mentioned.

A Neighborhood Law Office may be conducted either by a partnership of two or three lawyers or by a single lawyer if he can give sufficient time to ensure proper service.

There is no financial connection among the various offices and no pooling of profits and losses. The capital for the offices is furnished by the participants and there is no subsidy from any source. The participants in each office enter into partnership agreements and deposit copies with the Neighborhood Law Office Committee.

Each partnership or individual also enters into an Agreement with the Committee by which it pledges itself to abide by certain standards or practices set up by the Committee. In return, the partnership is permitted to state upon its stationery and upon its windows that it is a Neighborhood Law Office, authorized under the National Lawyers Guild Plan. The signs used at the offices are often very large when compared with the usual lawyer’s sign, and in at least two offices they are in neon lights. In another case, the sign overhangs the sidewalk like a banner and is electrically lit.

In the beginning, all offices were open part time only, but this requirement was soon waived because of the volume of business. The Agreement provides for certain minimum and maximum fees and for a fixed charge of $1 for an interview of not more than half-hour duration. Although the cost of living has risen greatly during the operation of the Plan, the $1 charge has been retained so far, at the request of the participants themselves, as a matter of good public relations. Persons who cannot pay are referred to the Legal Aid Society.

The Committee reserves the right to cancel the Agreement with or without cause, in which ease the office is no longer to consider itself a participant. In a decade of operation only one Agreement has been canceled.

Offices are self-supporting

As to the success of the individual offices, it is interesting to note the great growth in number of clients served and in the financial return to the participants. At the end of the experimental period, the Committee predicted that an office in a suitable neighborhood should clear about $5000 a year, to be divided among the participants, and that there should be a substantial increase for the participants for the next three to four years.

The actual figures have far exceeded this expectation. The most successful office, during a single year, has cleared more than $15,000. This office, which is one of the original group and is now in its eleventh year of operation, serves more than 1200 clients a year, exclusive of those who come only for preparation of income tax returns. Tax clients are not represented in the statistics, and the earnings from the preparation of tax returns are not included in the figure for the profit of the office.

Seven cases out of every eight in the Neighborhood Law Offices bring in fees of $5 or under; it is the eighth case, upon which a substantial profit is made, which enables the offices to come out ahead and subsidizes the service to the other seven. This is true to some extent in all law offices that engage in general practice. It is inevitable that some types of cases must be handled at a loss; and because the law is a profession and not a business, every practitioner expects to do that. Some cases must be profitable in order that the lawyer may carn his living. The Neighborhood Law Office probably handles more cases at a loss, but in this respect it differs from the ordinary law office in degree rather than in principle.

The location has a definite bearing on the success of the office. The typical office should be situated in the busiest block in a local shopping neighborhood. Where possible, it should be on the ground floor, but a number of Neighborhood Law Offices, because of high rental for first floor space, are on the second floor. The office is marked by a large sign, with the legend “Neighborhood Law Office— Lawyers Guild Plan,” which serves to identify the office as a member of the supervised group. The names of the participating lawyers are also displayed.

The offices are very plainly designed and furnished, and usually contain no more than a waiting room and a private office. In the waiting room there is a placard stating the charges of the office for curtain ordinary services, such as the preparing of a deed or the drawing of a will. Most of the offices have a few books, but in none is there what might be termed a law library. The offices are expected to be clean and reasonably neat, but any sort of “front” or elaborate furnishing is frowned upon as disturbing the psychological relation between the client and the lawyer.

Growth since World War II

The statisties for three recent years follow: —









Clients Served




Statistics for 1949 had not been tabulated when this article was written, but on the basis of the first nine months of that year, it was estimated that the twelve offices operated in 1949 would serve 4600 clients.

The number of clients served does not include persons who come to a Neighborhood Law Office solely to have an income tax return prepared. In doing this work, the busy offices invariably have had to call in additional help during the tax season.

In one year, one office did more than 1500 returns during the six-week period. It hired both lawyers and accountants on a per them basis. Tax clients are served at fixed fees in excess of the minimum $1 fee for an interview. On one occasion, the commotion at the best office was so great that it was necessary to station a policeman at the door to prevent the front wall from being pushed in. It would give a very distorted picture statistically if we should add the number of tax clients to the number of Neighborhood Law Office clients generally; for from year to year, as the forms change, the amount of such business varies greatly.

Some of the offices organized since the war have had immediate success. This is due to the long, favorable knowledge of the Plan by the community. Two of the offices which opened in 1948 did as much business in their first year as the best of the original offices did in its fourth.

But there have been several unsuccessful offices. The Committee gave earnest study to the reasons, wherever a failure occurred. One office was opened in it neighborhood in which the income of the average householder was rising and was higher than in the neighborhoods where the offices have succeeded. Such householders liked to brag to their friends about the expensive lawyer they patronized. In another office the personnel, in the opinion of the Committee, did not give enough time or effort to the office. A third was opened in a neighborhood notorious for its political-legal arrangements, which made it difficult for people who wanted to consult the Neighborhood Plan lawyer to do so without offending the politicians.

But the failures were few and far between, and in no case did they involve deterioration in the quality of service given to the individual clients while the office was open.

The Bar Association Reference Plan

The opening of the Bar Reference Plan, operated by the Philadelphia Bar Association, presents an interesting factor in the Philadelphia legal service situation. The Reference Plan is a bar association sponsored office where persons who believe they need legal assistance are interviewed by a lawyer. There is a fee of $1. If they need a lawyer, they are given an appointment with one who is qualified and who has agreed to charge a flat fee of $5 lot the first conference. I here is, of course, no hostility between the two plans. Although I am chairman of’ the Neighborhood Law Office Committee, I also served as a member of the organizing committee of the Bar Reference Plan and have since been a member of the board of that Plan.

The Bar Reference Plan has been open since May, 1948, and appears destined for success. Certainly, in its early months, it had many more applicants than most such reference plans had in their initial stages in other cities. I believe that this success was in no small measure due to the fact that the Philadelphia public has been prepared for legal service plans through favorable knowledge of the Neighborhood Plan.

Although a comparison of the Neighborhood Law Office Plan and the Bar Reference Plan is premature, it will be interesting to observe the two plans in operation in one city. Each plan seems to have advantages and disadvantages.

the Bar Reference Plan provides a centralized service, which is an advantage. It is located in Philadelphia’s City Hall, where it receives office space rent-free from the city; the Neighborhood Law Offices must pay their own rent. The fact that the Bar Association subsidizes the Plan relieves it of the necessity of making a profit; and the weight and prestige of the Philadelphia Bar Association, which has among its members more than half of the lawyers in Philadelphia, is helpful in bringing the need for the service to public attention.

There are two advantages of the Neighborhood Law Office Plan over the Bar Reference Plan: —

1. The service is more convenient to the client, both because it is located in his own neighborhood and because he can go directly to the lawyer who is to serve him, and not have to report first to a central office and be referred from that office to another lawyer’s office.

2. The type of lawyer who enters Neighborhood Law Office practice is often also the type best equipped to advise in preventive matters. Reference lists must, of necessity, be long and nearly allinclusive, and many lawyers on such bar lists are not, by the nature of their training and practice, inclined to serve neighborhood householders in preventive matters that require more than a minimum of time and trouble.

It would, of course, not be fair to compare the number of persons who used the facilities of the Bar Reference Plan in its first year with those who come to the Neighborhood Law Offices after they have been established so long. It is my belief that eventually the two plans will stabilize on a basis whereby the Bar Reference Plan will serve each year about the same number of persons that the Neighborhood Law Office Plan serves.

Some participants in Neighborhood Law Offices expressed fears, before the opening of the Bar Reference Plan, that their own neighborhood practices would suffer thereby, but such fears have proved entirely unfounded.

Looking ahead

The future of the Neighborhood Law Office Plan in Philadelphia seems assured. The offices are well established, the public likes the participants and the Plan, and the growth is natural and unforced. It is to be hoped that both the Neighborhood Law Office Plan and the Bar Reference Plan may be supervised by a single committee. Each plan has much to give to the other.

There is no doubt that the Neighborhood Plan is just as practical for any large city as for Philadelphia; but to make it work, an enthusiastic local committee must found and supervise it. A governmental subsidy might destroy the essential simplicity of the scheme and load it with a bureaucracy. I believe that much of the success of the Plan in Philadelphia is due to the absence of any sort of bureaucratic domination or governmental tie-in.

To sum up, the Neighborhood Plan as operated in Philadelphia has succeeded beyond the expectations of its originators, has pleased and been heavily patronized by the public, has shown a way in which the old relationship of attorney and client can be preserved without socialization or bureaucracy, and has begun to plow an immense and interesting field which may be sown with profit in every urban community in America.

The sponsors of the Plan expect the second decade of service to be even more productive than the first. Much remains to be done in the field of preventive legal service. Many who need legal assistance do not know where or how to find a lawyer they can trust, to help them for a price they can pay. The Neighborhood Law Office Plan is only one small gesture toward the great work the Bar ought to do if it is to fulfill its obligation to the public.