NO ASPECT of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty in the 1960s has had a more enduring effect on American society than the decision to provide free lawyers to the poor. The legal services program has altered whole acres of the law. The rights of tenants, welfare recipients, students, the elderly, veterans, Indians -- all have been sharpened and reaffirmed. Much of the energy and imagination that have gone into this effort have come from the so-called backup centers that the program has maintained -- modest think tanks specializing in the various areas of poverty law.

Ronald Reagan has been a leading critic of this potent program for 20 years. As governor of California from 1966 to 1974, he was one of its favorite targets. As president, he has made it one of his. In each of his first seven years in office he tried to defund it, and he has used the power of appointment to give the Legal Services Corp., which now runs it, a hostile board. The fight has been a ragged draw. In real terms funding has been reduced by about 25 percent, and various restrictions have been placed on the activities of both the local and state and national backup centers. But its friends in Congress have kept the program alive.

Now the president has said he will no longer ask that the program be abolished, only reformed. In the legislative appendix to his State of the Union message he indicated he will ask Congress merely to clip the wings of the backup centers, on grounds they do not provide "any day-to-day service to the poor -- the original intent of the LSC," but instead "have concentrated on social 'law reform,' without regard to a particular client's needs." He also wants in the name of competition to give the board more discretion than it now has to cut existing centers off and give their funds to new ones.

The legislators are said to be unlikely to do either of these things, nor should they. The legal services program has created no new rights or benefits for poor people in its 20 years. It has merely seen, in the context set by the courts, to the enforcement of rights and entitlements they already had. Congress has been right to preserve it from this president and board. If the program does need redirection, the next administration is time enough.