Jeanne Charn, JD ’70
Jeanne Charn is Co-founder and, for twenty-eight years served as Director of the Legal Services Center from its founding in 1978 as The Legal Services Institute, though its evolution to the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (HLS) in Jamaica Plain. Charn is a Senior Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School.
Charn is an HLS alumna, class of 1970. Her main activity from the summer after her first year of law school though her 3L year was legal aid work at Community Legal Assistance Office (CLAO). CLAO was an HLS-affiliated legal aid office funded by the Johnson Administration’s Office of Economic Opportunity. A committee of HLS faculty sought the grant to explore whether law students, supervised by experienced lawyers, could make significant contributions to providing legal services for poor people.
The CLAO office was located off campus in a high poverty neighborhood in Cambridge. Charn was assigned to the housing practice and her first client was a public housing tenant organization in Somerville. She worked with community organizers and by her 3L year Charn represented a state-wide organization of public housing tenants, had a sizable docket of private housing tenants facing eviction and rent increases, had begun to supervise 2Ls, and CLAO ultimately hired her as a full-time staff attorney/supervisor. Within a year she moved, with her tenant organization clients, to Mass Law Reform Institute where attorneys were advocating for reforms that would assure affordability, due process and a tenant voice in management of public housing developments.
At HLS, Albert Sacks was the new Dean who was working with a faculty committee to develop a clinical program that would move student leaning in and about practice into the curriculum. His committee included several of the faculty who had played a major role in the CLAO project. Dean Sacks and his committee quickly focused on Gary Bellow as their choice to lead Harvard’s academic clinical program. Bellow joined the faculty in 1972. In 1973 Dean Sacks and Gary Bellow chose Jeanne Charn for the newly created “Assistant Dean of the Law School and Director of Administration for Clinical Programs.” As the Harvard Record reported “Harvard Names ’70 Grad First Woman Dean.”
Charn’s first task was a proposal to the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility (CLEPR) to expand a pilot project that supported two year LL.M. fellowships for experienced attorneys interested in a career in clinical teaching. The fellows supervised HLS students practicing in area legal aid and public defender offices. At the same time the Fellows worked with Charn and Bellow refining clinical teaching methods and, via their LL.M theses, developing a distinctive clinical scholarship.
Drawing on the CLAO experience and their work with Fellows and collaborations with real world, real time providers of legal assistance, Bellow and Charn conceived of a large, law school affiliated “teaching law office” similar to the teaching hospital in medicine. With support from Dean Sacks, Charn and Bellow developed a proposal for an intensive, year-long program in a fully functioning law practice that would be located off campus in a low-income neighborhood that would place the civil legal needs of the community’s most disenfranchised people at its center. After a full year of planning and debate, the HLS faculty voted unanimously to support a pilot third year program where all classes would be offered at the law office by clinical faculty who served clients, supervised student practice and taught classes. The Legal Services Institute was structured as a partnership between Greater Boston Legal Services, the Legal Services Corporation and Harvard Law School. The Institute accepted its first class for the 1979-1980 academic year and a second class for the 1980-81 academic year.
This bold pilot project ended after the Legal Services Corporation withdrew its support, but the partnership with Greater Boston Legal Services continued for nearly two decades. The Institute evolved into the Legal Services Center that now celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Charn has been a tireless innovator. In her years as director, the Center developed a pioneering AIDS law clinic and a path-breaking medical legal-partnership. It devised a highly innovative continuum of services – a so-called mixed model delivery system – that recognized the range of client needs and resource constraints in legal services. She designed and implemented important quality assurance measures in a field where few existed. She championed the importance of bringing students from prestigious law schools into low-income communities to provide high quality legal services in collaboration with law school faculty and practicing attorneys at local law firms.
Through her teaching and service, Charn instilled empathy and respect of the client community in generations of students and colleagues. She introduced students to emerging trends in legal services delivery. She wrote on clinical practice to inform and educate her peers. She has served the clinical teaching and legal services communities in multiple roles. She was one of the first chairs of the Association of American Law Schools Section on Clinical Legal Education. For nearly two decades she has served as a member of the Clinical Section Standing Committee on Lawyering in the Public Interest. She has been elected to the Board of Directors of the Clinical Legal Education Association. Following Gary Bellow’s death in 2000, she collaborated with Clinical Section leaders to create the Bellow Scholar Program that continues to recognize and promote clinical scholarship and rigorous examination of service and teaching efforts.
Today, Charn continues through her teaching, writing, and policy efforts to make the benefits of law and legal assistance more widely and effectively available. She directs the Bellow-Sacks Access to Civil Legal Services Project and is on the advisory committee of the International Legal Aid Group (ILAG) that promotes research and innovation in government-funded legal aid programs around the world. In her legal profession and seminar courses she continues to bring decades of experience and knowledge of lawyers and legal aid efforts around the world to the classroom where she encourages her students to think boldly about 21st century challenges and opportunities as they begin their post HLS years.