Three Rivers Legal Services, Inc. is a non-profit law firm dedicated to the provision of quality legal assistance to the poor, abused, disabled and elderly, and to empowerment through preventive legal education.
THREE RIVERS LEGAL SERVICES
40 Years of Civil Legal Aid
In 2018, Three Rivers Legal Services celebrates its 40th Anniversary of providing free, civil legal services to North Florida’s low income and vulnerable populations. It’s hard for us to believe we have been in business for so long, accomplished and grown so much, served so many people, and grown such deep roots. We have a proud history, a story which actually began in 1964.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty and later that year, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act. It provided the initial federal funding for the provision of a nationwide system of help for the poor. Programs such as Head Start and Job Corps were part of that Act. Legal services were also included in the effort to end poverty. As President Johnson stated, “To a great many poor Americans, the law has long been an alien force … the Legal Services Program was created to give the poor the same access to the protection of the law that more fortunate citizens have.. It is a weapon in our comprehensive attack on the root causes of poverty …”
President Johnson’s chosen head of the War on Poverty, President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, placed a strong emphasis on a nationwide system of legal services, as part of the effort. He once remarked “… I am proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited. I was proud of the young lawyers who turned down fat, corporate practices to work for the poor.” In 1974, the Legal Services Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, actually creating a separate federal agency, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), and in 1977 LSC began to make funds available to local legal aid programs across the country.
Meanwhile, in Florida, during the early 1970s, a group of Gainesville attorneys and University of Florida College of Law professors banded together and formed a legal aid clinic known as Storefront Legal Aid. Local attorneys were instrumental in forming clinics and other opportunities for volunteer attorneys to provide legal services to low-income clients of Storefront Legal Aid.
In 1977, Storefront Legal Aid joined forces with the legal aid branch of the Suwannee River Economic Council in Live Oak to form Three Rivers Legal Services, and they applied for funding from LSC. With new grant funds, Three Rivers began serving clients in seven North Central Florida counties in 1978. Three Rivers opened with small offices in Gainesville and Lake City led by our first Executive Director, Robert Graddy. That first staff consisted of three attorneys and three paralegals plus a small clerical staff. One year later, the service area increased to include the 12 counties of the Eighth and Third Judicial Circuits.
As a grantee of the Legal Services Corporation, Three Rivers’ budgets have ebbed and flowed throughout the 40 years, based on available federal resources. When The Florida Bar founded The Florida Bar Foundation in 1981 and created the first Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program in the United States, additional funding helped supplement the federal grants received by Three Rivers.
In 2004, under the leadership of Executive Director Allison Thompson, Three Rivers opened a third office in Jacksonville as part of a statewide restructuring of programs and services. Our service area grew to cover 17 counties and currently provides services from the Georgia border to the southern edge of Alachua County, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Under the current leadership of Executive Director Christine Larson, Three Rivers is funded by over thirty grants, with a staff of 20 attorneys, 4 paralegals, 9 support staff and a small administrative team. We are fortunate to have numerous volunteer attorneys and law students help with accomplishing our mission.
Forty years ago, Three Rivers opened the doors to become the provider of much needed free civil legal services to the poor. Throughout those 40 years, our mission has remained clear: to provide quality legal assistance to the poor, abused, disabled and elderly and to empower through preventive legal education. It is a mission we undertake with pride.