The First Generation of the Detroit Legal Aid Bureau
University of Detroit Mercy School of Law
February 8, 2011
Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2006
This paper recounts the 1909 founding and first thirty years of Detroit Bar Association’s Legal Aid Bureau. Part of a national legal aid movement, the Bureau was the first such society to be sponsored by a private bar association. The history reveals the integral role that brothers Fred and Henry Butzel had in the Bureau’s development and focuses on the work of the first three directors of the office over its first decades: Edward Pokorny, Otto Wismer, and Louis Miriani.
From its beginnings as strictly part-time work by Edward Pokorny, a sole practitioner, the Bureau grew after World War I with the assistance of funding from the Detroit Community Fund, a consortium of social welfare societies.
As its second director, Otto Wismer oversaw the establishment of suitable and permanent offices where the Bureau served as an integral part of the Community Fund, serving as house counsel to the City’s charities. Wismer was also active in the national association of legal aid organizations and worked to develop a statewide network of legal aid. The third director, Louis Miriani, realized a measure of the agency’s promise by litigation and public education to make the Bureau a respected voice for the cause of legal aid.
Using the Bureau’s annual reports and newspapers as primary sources, the paper surveys the work for the City’s poor, with emphasis on the social background of that clientele. It attempts a critical assessment of each directors’ term after analyzing their work in the context of Detroit’s phenomenal growth during the early twentieth century. It concludes that, despite the valuable efforts of the directors, the Bureau’s limited resources resulted in their work failing to meet the demand for legal services.
Date posted: February 10, 2011