The East Bay Community Law Center was founded in 1988 as the Berkeley Community Law Center by law students from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. The student founders were motivated by the intersection of significant trends in legal services and legal education.
First, the students were deeply moved by the impact of the federal government's retreat from the anti-poverty agenda of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, affordable housing programs were decimated and people with mental disabilities were deinstitutionalized in record numbers, resulting in an unprecedented growth in homelessness. At the same time, dramatic cuts to legal services resulted in the closure of neighborhood offices throughout Alameda County, including in Berkeley. Students stepping over homeless people on the way to law school classes wanted to help.
Second, students were inspired by the growing clinical legal education movement in U.S. law schools, also a product of the 1960s and 1970s. Increasingly, law schools were realizing the potential of experiential learning, and Boalt students were eager for such opportunities. Equally important, clinics were ideal sites for leveraging the talents of law students to help bridge the access to justice gap for clients and community groups in poor communities. In establishing EBCLC, the founders saw a win-win opportunity to gain hands-on professional training while serving the local community.
On September 26, 1988, the Berkeley Community Law Center opened its doors with the dual service-learning mission of assisting low-income clients while offering clinical training to law students.
The beginnings were modest. A bare-bones budget and donated supplies including a single typewriter supported a storefront office and a staff of three: Executive Director Bernida Reagan; Staff Attorney and Berkeley Law Foundation Fellow Brad Adams; and Office Manager Millie Johnson. The rest, as they say, is history.
With the hard work of staff, students, Boalt faculty and board members, and the incredible support of many individuals and institutions, EBCLC has grown to become the largest provider of free legal services in the East Bay and Boalt Hall's largest clinical offering.
With a full-time staff of 20, EBCLC now serves several thousand low-income clients and community groups each year with legal matters directly affecting their income, shelter and health care. Many other East Bay residents receive education, information or referrals to help meet their critical needs.
EBCLC also plays a central role in preparing and inspiring the next generation of lawyers committed to social justice. Approximately 80 students enroll in EBCLC's nationally-recognized clinical program each year, receiving high-quality training and mentoring under the supervision of our staff attorneys. Dozens more students participate in one or more of our community outreach, education and service programs.
The need for EBCLC's services continues to grow. The enactment of welfare reform, the "state of emergency" AIDS epidemic, and the on-going crisis in affordable housing have combined to increase the scope and depth of instability and insecurity in the lives of low-income families living in the East Bay. At the same time, Congress has slashed federal funding for and imposed sweeping subject matter restrictions on legal services to the poor, further reducing the quantity and scope of legal advocacy and assistance to low-income residents.
Budget cuts in 1996 alone reduced legal services to the low-income community by almost 40% in California; even prior to the cuts, studies suggested that at least four out of five legal needs of poor Californians went unmet. Currently there is one attorney for every 200 middle and upper-income people in the state, but only one attorney for every 20,000 low-income people, leaving many of our most vulnerable residents without meaningful access to any legal assistance.
Our history, then, is our future. In partnership with our many stakeholders, we will continue to strive to increase access to justice, to expand clinical opportunities for law students and to make our community more healthy, secure, productive and hopeful.