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The Politics of Civil Legal Assistance in the United States: Three Essays on the Development, Maintenance, and Delivery of Legal Services Open Access

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As resources for legal aid become more scarce in America, the politics of civil legal services become even more relevant for organizations delivering legal services, and have even greater consequences for individuals accessing free legal help. How does the development and evolution of federal legal services policy influence decisions made by independent organizations? Moreover, how do those decisions at the organizational level influence the delivery of services? My dissertation examines the impact of federal legal services policy design on the choices organizations (and state governments) make in delivering legal services, and how those choices impact the delivery of services at the individual level.In my first essay, I use data on amendment votes to demonstrate the compromises required to develop the House version of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Act, which created an independent corporation that absorbed many of the responsibilities of a dismantled executive agency program, the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Legal Services Program (LSP). I argue that these compromises create a less durable, and more politicized institution than LSC supporters initially had envisioned. In my second essay, I introduce a new longitudinal dataset of programs supported by the LSC per year to study a key period of politicization in the history of civil legal services. I find that the organizations that provide legal services within states were reluctant to cooperate with one another in the face of a federal institutional change due to local institutional pressures and conflicts with state political actors. The third essay examines the civic and political consequences of visiting federally or non-federally funded legal services offices, as well as the effects of the receipt or non-receipt of services in each. I demonstrate that the institutional design choices of legal services offices have an effect on the kinds of “micro-democratic” outcomes individuals experience as a result of seeking out services. Further, the denial of services reduces individuals’ feelings of efficacy and their confidence in their usage of skills in the legal environment.Taken together, these essays contribute to our theoretical and empirical knowledge on civil legal services and social policy more broadly by testing hypotheses about institutional development and evolution, organizational change, and policy feedback with new data and novel methodological tools. I conclude that the politics of civil legal assistance in the United States influences the development of civil legal institutions and the types of services individuals receive.

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