Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Social Work, Ph.D.

First Advisor

David P. Fauri, PhD

Second Advisor

Mary Katherine O'Connor, PhD

Third Advisor

M. Alex Wagaman, PhD

Fourth Advisor

Hilary E. Hughes, PhD

Fifth Advisor

Hannah E. M. Lieberman, JD


Legal aid programs comprise a robust national infrastructure attempting to alleviate and reduce poverty. Since their proliferation as part of the War on Poverty, these organizations have provided individual civil legal assistance and engaged in collective legal and political strategies to advance systemic change. Starting in the 1980s, however, public policies have been enacted to cut funding and restrict the ability of federally funded legal aid programs to engage in collective and systemic advocacy. As a result, the ability of programs to work alongside low-income communities has been compromised. The histories and core commitments of legal aid and social work are linked. As a profession social work is concerned broadly with efforts to address poverty and specifically with the self-determination and empowerment of those experiencing poverty directly. In this study a constructivist grounded theory design was used to examine the process of collaboration between legal aid attorneys and client community members. The sample for the study included 28 attorneys, client community members, and other stakeholders affiliated with three legal aid programs. Based on 28 interviews and two focus groups with these participants, a conceptual framework entitled Collaborating for Justice in a Legal Aid Context was constructed. Findings suggest that both primary stakeholder groups were motivated to act by the unequal access to advantage in the world around them. Once affiliated with legal aid, they were constrained by scarcity of resources but nonetheless acted creatively to collaborate as well as to enhance collaborative capacity. Collaboration occurred in different timeframes, and this temporal element suggested ways that individuals and organizations can extend and deepen collaboration. Collective activities, informal interaction, and boards and advisory groups all played roles in facilitating collaboration between legal aid programs and their client communities. Through these actions, participants and their affiliated organizations were able to move from circumstances of scarcity to circumstances of generativity and development. Implications for education, practice, and policy are discussed.


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Social Work Commons