Article by Gerry Singsen

Written for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Reporter



Gary Bellow, a great lawyer, teacher and human being, passed away on April 13. He was 64. He had lived almost 30 years in Boston, teaching at Harvard Law School and living in Jamaica Plain. He was revered as a teacher, respected as a thinker, followed as a leader, feared as an adversary, honored as a creator of both civil legal services and clinical legal education institutions and loved as a man of unbounded compassion and commitment. He made the complex comprehensible and the simple profound. Throughout his life, the center of his scholarship and advocacy was the needs of vulnerable individuals facing impossible challenges. 

An appreciation of Gary’s role in the world of advocacy for the poor begins earlier. After Yale College, Harvard Law School and an LL.M. in criminal justice at Northwestern, he was a public defender in D.C. (with what Charles Ogletree describes as a “remarkable string of acquittals”). Then he turned his creative leadership to D.C.’s United Planning Organization, a community-based agency  in the original model of a community action program that was also the civil legal services provider. He was the D.C. Bar Association’s Young Lawyer of the Year in 1964.

Building on that work, Gary joined with Jim Lorenz to create California Rural Legal Assistance. He was Deputy Director at CRLA (and often the senior litigator) for the two years (1966-68) that taught Governor Ronald Reagan why a legal services program was so dangerous to reactionary government. Gary was an advisor to Cesar Chavez and the farmworker movement that became the United Farmworkers of California. In 1968 he received the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s highest honor for a legal services attorney, the Reginald Heber Smith Award.

He had always taught.  His duties at CRLA and D.C.’s Legal Aid Agency included on-going training of staff.  So it was a logical move for him to become a full-time teacher.  He spent three years at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and then came to Harvard in the summer of 1971 as a visiting professor. Appointed a Professor of Law in 1972, he began to develop a new clinical program. His work during this period inspired and informed young law professors across the country and earned him a devoted following in the academy.  The clinical movement he led sought to bring a consciousness of the poor and of their legal needs into legal education. “The Lawyering Process,” the 1978 book that Gary wrote with Bea Moulton, stands without peer as an exploration of legal, social, political, psychological and practical wisdom about  the day-to-day work of representing individual clients and about the difficulties of finding meaning in one’s work and retaining a moral center while practicing law.

Then, in the late 1970s, Gary and his wife, Jeanne Charn, founded the Legal Services Institute which became the Legal Services Center (now the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center), the premier clinical law program in New England. Through the Center, Gary maintained his direct role in poverty advocacy even while he taught thousands of students what it meant to deliver effective legal services in ways that altered the lives of individuals, families and communities — and of their advocates. In the years that followed, Gary and Jeanne built the Legal Services Center and the clinical program into a robust partner in Boston’s civil legal services community, solidified with a $2 million commitment from Hale and Dorr in 1993. He was honored with the American Association of Law Schools Award for Outstanding Clinical Teaching in 1985.

Gary taught with stories, making complex life situations understandable and difficult legal concepts useful. In a letter to Gary, Greater Boston Legal Services executive director Bob Sable remembered a negotiation training by Gary in about 1970. “The incredible thing was that because of your ability to break down what you had done into its components and to explain them, everyone in the room went away believing that they too, with some work, could accomplish what  you had accomplished. It remains to this day the most dazzling example of teaching I have encountered.” 

Two of his stories were published in Heymann and Liebman’s “Social Responsibilities of Lawyers” (Foundation Press 1988). The opening story is a case of Gary’s about a young child, a troubled mother, a foster care system gone horribly awry in an eastern city, and the startling power and daunting choices that a lawyer must make about a client’s life.  “Rita’s Case” is one of the most powerful tools in law school pedagogy.

The second story, “California Rural Legal Assistance,” is a tale of Gary’s CRLA work for farmworkers. The book quotes Gary regarding a fundamental theme of his teaching — that “the worst think a lawyer can do . . . is to take an issue that could be won by political organization and win it in the courts.” Anticipating what was to be said about a lawyer’s role for corporate clients by Skaddan, Arps’ Joseph Flom, Gary said “I saw legal services as an arm of community organization, that is, the lawyer was to function . . . at times as a lawyer, at times as an organizer, an educator, teacher, and PR man.” This view infused Gary’s analysis, teaching and writing throughout his career, whether he was litigating a social security benefits case or working with community organizations to establish an “eviction free zone.”

A more recent set of stories appears in “Law Stories” (University of Michigan Press 1996), edited by Gary and Martha Minow.  Here the subtleties of the lawyer’s role are plumbed through a number of Massachusetts-based case studies written by legal services and defender advocates. 

Another abiding concern of Gary’s was with the quality of advocacy. In the late 1960s he wrote a short article about the importance of caseload control in making quality work possible; it overwhelmed proponents of band-aid justice. In the 1980s he pioneered a method of program evaluation that actually paid attention to the quality of a program’s legal work; he examined samples of each advocate’s case files in a program and gave detailed feedback about the legal work he observed. As head of the clinical program at Harvard in the 1990s he pushed to ensure that the clinical work for clients was carefully and candidly evaluated. 

In 1996, the Massachusetts Bar Association created, in his honor, its Access to Justice Lifetime Achievement Award — and made him its first recipient. In 1999, the National Equal Justice Library, having considered forty years of poverty law scholarship, singled out Bellow and Moulton’s “The Lawyering Process” for its unique contribution to legal education.

 This short appreciation cannot begin to tell the story of Gary’s contribution to the lives of countless clients, lawyers, students, teachers and others. He touched all of our lives, directly or indirectly, in the making and remaking of advocacy for the poor and clinical legal education over forty years of creative, loving and committed life. In the search for justice, no one gave more of himself. 

For those of us blessed to have known and worked with him in person, Gary offered to join each of us in a journey into our souls through the open and unswerving gift of his whole self to everything he did. He was so present to each moment with each person that every conversation felt valuable, meaningful. Not only were his words and feelings delivered in ways that you knew mattered, but his listening and responses made it clear that your own ideas, hopes and concerns were important as well. If we could all attend to others as Gary did, the world would be a very different, and much better place.

A memorial website, with pictures and stories about Gary, has been created by Richard Zorza at  All are invited to learn more about the lives Gary touched, and to tell their own stories about the people Gary helped them to become.

                                                  Gerry Singsen


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