Cahn, Edgar -- Interview by Alan Houseman, 2002 Jul 03

Identifier: NEJL-009.056

Scope and Contents

In this interview, Edgar Cahn recalls how he met his future wife, Jean Camper, at Swarthmore, how he followed her into law school after getting his PhD in English, and how the couple became involved with legal services in New Haven.

He describes how they came to write their landmark article: “War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective” (1964), the beginnings of the OEO legal services program, and his work with Sargent Shriver (he worked as special counsel to Sargent Shriver until 1967), and the Task Force on the War on Poverty.

Cahn also touches on controversies with the American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) over legal aid funding, and recalls the process of establishing the Antioch School of Law, which emphasized public interest law.


  • 2002 Jul 03


Conditions Governing Access

Video recording available upon request.

Historical note

Edgar and Jean Cahn were pioneers in legal services and clinical legal education. Together and individually they helped shape the field of legal services as we know it today.

Edgar Cahn earned his B.A. from Swarthmore College in 1956, and his M.A. and PhD in English literature from Yale University in 1960. While at Swarthmore, he met Jean Camper, the daughter of Dr. John E. T. Camper, a prominent African American physician in Baltimore who had founded the city’s first chapter of the NAACP. The two married, and Edgar Cahn eventually followed Jean at Yale Law School (she graduated in 1961 and he graduated in 1963).

Cahn’s involvement with legal services started during his first year of law school, when he worked as an intern for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). During his second year of law school, he worked as a speech writer for Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Jean Camper Cahn was working as associate counsel for the Redevelopment Agency in New Haven and was asked to draw the corporate papers for the Community Progress Inc., a community development organization funded by the Ford Foundation that undertook the development of different neighborhoods. The Cahns’ work on legal services in disadvantaged communities and on neighborhood law offices formed the basis of their landmark 1964 article for the Yale Law Journal, “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective,” which proposed a national system of legal services to the poor. Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, was moved by the Cahns to establish the Legal Services Program, the first federally-funded national program of its kind. This program lasted until 1974 when it was replaced by the Legal Services Corporation.

In 1972, the Cahns founded the Antioch School of Law in Washington, DC, which emphasized public interest law. The school used a clinical education model to train students. Students spent the first two weeks of the school year living with a poor family to familiarize themselves with the people they would be representing. The school was closed in 1988, but its legacy continues at the University of the District of Columbia’s Clarke School of Law where Edgar Cahn is Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

Edgar Cahn founded Time Bank while he was a fellow at the London School of Economics in 1987. Members of Time Bank earn Time Dollars for each hour they perform a community service. Some of these services include child care, helping students with homework and running errands for elderly neighbors. These dollars are then “banked” and can be exchanged for items or services by other members of the Bank. Some members can earn college tuition or a service such as yard work.

Jean Cahn continued to teach and practice law until her death in 1991.


1:48:50 hour(s)

48 page(s)

Language of Materials