Joe Meissner learned early on that despite his Harvard Law School pedigree, corporate law probably wasn’t in his future. Take, for instance, the job interview he had in the mid-1960s with a high-powered law firm. He told his interviewers about being co-chair of the Harvard Civil Rights Committee. And about his stint in the South, marching for civil rights during the now-famous Freedom Summer of ’64. He also asked if the firm recruited female lawyers. Yes, he was told, but they were kept in the back because, “The clients will think that you don’t value them highly if you have women working on their legal problems.”
After about a half hour, he knew it wasn’t a match made in heaven. “I would have got slaughtered, thrown out or jumped off the bridge,” he says.
But the corporate legal world’s loss proved to be the gain of thousands of poor people in need of help. Meissner took his unique thirst for justice and spent the next 45 years with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, becoming the public face of the organization, which pursues justice for people in poverty. Meissner formally retired from the group in August, but he just couldn’t stop helping. He turned around and opened a storefront office in an Asian-themed plaza on the near West Side of Cleveland, where he’s continuing to practice community law. But that’s typical Meissner.
“What’s unique about Joe is that he never sought any administrative position,” says Burt Griffin, who hired Meissner in 1967. “He wanted to stay helping his clients. There is nobody I know who is truer to his principals than Joe.”
Dave Dawson, who joined Legal Aid just four years after Joe and later served as deputy director, recalls the extreme lengths that Meissner went in support of his clients, even taking photos of police as they were themselves taking photos of so-called subversives—actually, just people of limited means publicly clamoring for justice. “It reflects his commitment and spirit,” Dawson says. “His willingness to do things out of the ordinary for his clients.”
Legal Aid is the law firm for low-income individuals, and a key part of America’s social safety net. It provides vigorous legal representation in the areas of consumer rights, disability, domestic violence, education, employment, family law, health, housing, foreclosure, immigration, public benefits, utilities and taxes. When it was founded in 1905, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland was just the fifth legal aid organization in the world.
Meissner joined Legal Aid about the time that federal funding changed it from a part-time sideline for lawyers to a fulltime job. “We tended to have generalists who became de facto specialists,” Dawson recalls. Meissner’s specialties became community development and public utilities. He became an expert in gas, electric and cable TV, representing clients of modest means before public utility regulating bodies.
Over time—no doubt in part because of his deep interest in Vietnam (where he served in the Army for two years) and the fact that his mother was an immigrant from Ireland–he also specialized in helping fledgling immigrant communities, helping to resettle 10,000 Vietnamese immigrants to the Cleveland area. Almost from the start of his career, he was active in issues affecting the Native American community, suing the Cleveland Indians for its allegedly racist Chief Wahoo logo in a case that went on for a dozen years.
A survey of the kinds of cases he got involved in over the years reads like an inventory of the issues affecting the poor. He fought on their behalf against environmental degradation, utility rate gouging and, most recently, the epidemic of mortgage foreclosures. What he considers his main achievement was his role in an innovative utility payment plan for people of limited means, which allows people of modest means to keep their gas and electric service intact if they pay 6 percent of their actual monthly income for each. The program now covers nearly 400,000 Ohioans. “Nowhere else do we have as comprehensive a program as Ohio,” he says proudly. “And it’s not a welfare program, because the families pay their bills.”
While cases such as those may have touched many, Meissner seems always to remain focused on individuals rather than thinking of people in groups. When he talks about his work, he often points to particular clients who touched him (as they were no doubt touched by him) on a personal level.
“I love my clients,” he says repeatedly. “I have one young woman who’s been with me since 1969. She was a 15-year-old girl who I represented in Juvenile Court. She’s still having a tough time of it, but there she is with six children and 20 grandchildren, and twins on the way. She still calls me with legal questions. She says, Œyou’ve been such a good lawyer and friend of our family.’ If I were in private practice, I’m not sure clients would say that.”
Asked if he ever gets frustrated with the lack of attention society now pays to issue of the poor, he nods yes. “If you were to ask me, are things better or worse for them than when I began, I would not be able to give you a yes answer. I don’t know if no is the answer, either,” he says, citing such changes as the earned income credit. “I’m an optimist, but I feel like we haven’t even started.“