Prof. Edgar CahnHappy Birthday to Edgar Cahn

The University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law is having an 81st birthday celebration for Prof. Edgar S. Cahn, the founding Dean of what was then Antioch School of Law, (founded 1972), the nation’s first clinical law school.

I first learned of Edgar and Jean Cahn (deceased) as a 2L at Columbia Law School in 1964. At the time I was involved in creating a law students civil rights organization, with colleagues from other law schools, (LSCRRC),  and Edgar and Jean helped us establish a chapter at Yale Law School.

At the time  I  was wondering what my alternatives might be for a career in law that would be meaningful and purposeful.  Then I read the Cahn’s ground-breaking article titled: The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective [The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 73, No. 8 (Jul., 1964), pp. 1317-1352 ], which introduced the concept of a neighborhood law office dedicated to increasing access to the legal system for all.

This was an idea I could relate to and a way for me to have a career in law consistent with my core values.

In 1964 Edgar became Special Assistant and main speech writer to Sargent Shriver, the new Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, (“the War on Poverty”),  and Jean Cahn, became a consultant to the Office of Economic Opportunity to create a national legal services program.  When I graduated from law school in June, 1965, Edgar helped me secure my first job in the General Counsel’s Office of the Office of Economic Opportunity, for which I am forever grateful.

Edgar and Jean’s breakthrough thinking continued to shape my thinking and my career for many years thereafter.

In 1996, they co-authored another ground-breaking article titled: What Price Justice: The Civilian Perspective Revisited  [Notre Dame Law Journal, Volume 41 Issue 6 Symposium Article 8 7-1-1966 ]. This criticism of the legal industry could apply today:

“We would contend that – the product we are selling – quality legal services – is virtually unusable for the purpose for which sold. – the production and distribution system we are currently attempting to expand is basically obsolete. – And, the manpower supply is curtailed sharply by unnecessary, nonfunctional protectivist guild restrictions. ”


“If Justice under law is to become a product for mass consumption, rather than a luxury item for the privileged and for private enterprise, we will not bring the price down within general reach by a straight exponential increase in the present supply of legal services as currently rendered the poor – or even the middle class. More neighborhood law firms, “judicare” programs, sliding scales of indigency, expansion of law school enrollment, increase of legal technicians, a massive increase in federal expenditures – none of these will produce more than the appearance of due process where the endless proliferation of rules and safeguards masks our underlying misgivings above the humanity and fairness of the system itself. (p. 940).

These were new ideas I could also relate to.  I owe Edgar Cahn a great debt as much of my own career has been  working on a variation of the ideas he and Jean first introduced  me to in these two landmark articles and many personal conversations. Edgar was my best teacher even though I was never  a formal student in one of his classes. His friendship and support enabled me to make a commitment to increasing “justice” in our society. Edgar and Jean helped me to find my right path.

The Cahn’s criticism of the legal profession, written over 50 years ago, is just as relevant today. Many innovative concepts that can be traced directly to their work:

  • a national, federally funded-legal services program;
  • clinical programs in every major law school;
  • the use of non-lawyers to deliver legal solutions directly to consumers;
  • neighborhood law offices staffed by “incubator” lawyers;
  •  “unbundled or limited legal services”
  • neighborhood court systems
  • online dispute settlement systems accessible without lawyers
  • self-help legal tools for citizens;
  • maximum feasible participation of citizens in legal systems governance  and regulatory systems. (Rather than only lawyers governing lawyers).

It’s quite a legacy. Even though it is Edgar Cahn’s 81st Birthday — which often marks a lifetime of achievement — Edgar continues to innovate with the TimeBanking concept which seeks to build caring communities through the exchange of time and talents – another breakthrough idea that is expanding worldwide.

Edgar — The best is yet to come!.