New Legal Aid building symbolizes justice Baltimore provided land for bureau's offices


From his new office on the third floor of the Legal Aid Bureau building downtown, Executive Director Charles H. Dorsey Jr. looks right into City Hall one block away. He said he can't think of a more appropriate view.

It was the city government, after all, that provided the land for the new five-story building at 500 E. Lexington St., the first home the bureau has ever owned in its 81-year history.

"We have sued the city and the state on behalf of our clients," Mr. Dorsey said. "Yet they participated in building this.

"We couldn't have built it without the help of the mayor and city government. This is a symbol that they believe justice is something everyone in the city and state is entitled to -- equal justice for all."

"It's a philosophical statement that shows the interest of the City of Baltimore in empowering poor people to settle their problems through the process of law," agreed George W. McManus Jr., the bureau's project officer. "Instead of taking the law into their own hands, they know they can come here."

The Legal Aid Bureau is a private, non-profit Maryland corporation, organized in 1911 to provide legal representation in civil matters to Maryland residents unable to obtain legal services any other way.

Known as "the law firm of last resort," the bureau specializes in representing abused and neglected children, the elderly, and people with problems relating to housing, consumer law, governmental benefits and physical and mental disabilities. According to Mr. Dorsey, it provides 85 percent of all free legal services throughout the state. If it were a private law firm, it would be one of the city's largest.

Starting today, the bureau's 135 attorneys and support staff will begin serving clients from their new central offices, just three blocks north of their previous quarters in the Candler Building on Market Place.

The move, completed over the weekend, marks the culmination of years of planning and construction designed to provide a permanent home for the organization, which has always been in leased space.

Not having to pay rent will save the bureau $11 million to $14 million over the next 16 years, directors say. The savings will support the work of the organization, which helped more than 60,000 people last year from 12 offices around the state and handled 150,000 phone calls.

The 62,000-square-foot, $6.7 million project provides nearly twice the amount of space the bureau occupied in the Candler Building and an additional office on Baltimore Street.

"This country was founded on the concept that everyone is equal under the law," Mr. Dorsey said. "This building is a symbol that the law can be a sword and a shield for you. It will help give more people access to the system."

Mr. Dorsey said that the project was the result of a team effort that involved both the public and private sectors. He credits Al Copp, former head of the city's downtown development agency, and agency Vice President Gary Carr with suggesting the site, a triangular parcel next to the War Memorial Building. The Rouse Co. served pro bono as the bureau's principal adviser.

Hord Coplan & Macht Inc. was the architect. Essex/Harvey Cleary was the general contractor, under the supervision of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse.

In addition to receiving the land, valued at $600,000 and donated by the city, the bureau received $1.25 million voted by the state legislature to help pay for construction and a $500,000 donation from Maryland Legal Services, a non-profit organization that serves the poor.

To help the bureau pay off its mortgage early, a capital campaign committee has been formed to raise $2.3 million from law firms, businesses, foundations and private donors.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Walter Sondheim Jr., the senior adviser for the Greater Baltimore Committee, are honorary co-chairmen of the committee. Wilbur D. Preston Jr. of the Baltimore-based law firm Whiteford, Taylor & Preston is the general chairman. The group has already raised $400,000.

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