National Lawyers Guild

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is a progressive public interest association of lawyers, law students, paralegals, jailhouse lawyers, law collective members, and other activist legal workers, in the United States. The group was founded in 1937 as an alternative to the American Bar Association (ABA) in protest of that organization's exclusionary membership practices and conservative political orientation. They were the first US bar association to allow the admission of minorities to their ranks. The group sought to bring more lawyers closer to the labor movement and progressive political activities (e.g., the Farmer-Labor Party movement), to support and encourage lawyers otherwise "isolated and discouraged," and to help create a "united front" against Fascism.[1]

National Lawyers Guild
National lawyers guild emblem.jpg
Logo of the National Lawyers Guild
TypeLegal society
Headquarters132 Nassau St., Ste 922,
New York, New York
  • United States
Elena L. Cohen
Key people
Pooja Gehi, Executive Director

The group declares itself to be "dedicated to the need for basic and progressive change in the structure of our political and economic system . . . to the end that human rights shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests."[2] During the McCarthy era, the organization was accused of operating as a communist front group.


Harold I. Cammer, a co-founder of the National Lawyers Guild.


On December 1, 1936, nearly 25 East Coast lawyers met at the City Club of New York to discuss creation of a new group counter to the conservative American Bar Association. United Auto Workers general counsel Maurice Sugar was instrumental in calling the meeting. Lawyers present included: Morris Erst, Robert Silberstein and Mortimer Reimer of the Lawyers Security League, ACLU attorney Osmond Fraenkel, IJA-US founder Carol Weiss King, and union lawyer Henry Sacher. The group agreed on an aim to unite "all lawyers who regarded adjustments to new conditions as more important than the veneration of precedent, who recognize the importance of safeguarding and extending the right of workers and farmers upon whom the welfare of the entire nation depends, of maintaining our civil rights and liberties and our democratic institutions." The group elected Frank P. Walsh, member of the New York State Power Authority, as its first president. Within two weeks, Guild chapters had already formed in New York City, Newark, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, and Chicago.[1]

The National Lawyers Guild was founded in Washington, D.C. at a convention held from February 19–22, 1937 at the Hotel Washington.[3] Individuals particularly instrumental in the creation of the organization included Harold I. Cammer and George Wagman Fish, among others.[4] Other founding members included Frank P. Walsh, Albert Wald, Morris Ernst, Jerome Frank, as well as the general counsels of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.[5] Another co-founder was Abraham Unger of New York City.[6] The first Executive Secretary of the organization was Mortimer Riemer.[7] President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter of support.[8]

According to Victor Rabinowitz, head of the NLG in the 1960s, the original membership of the organization came from two camps — established liberal attorneys with a labor-oriented perspective and "a militant segment of the bar, mostly young and sometimes radical."[9] The National Lawyers Guild was the nation's first racially integrated bar association.[4] Among the NLG's first causes was its support of President Roosevelt's New Deal, which was opposed by the American Bar Association (ABA). NLG assisted the emerging labor movement, and opposed the racial segregation policies in the ABA and in society in general.[2] Following the Nazis' invasion of the Soviet Union, the Guild gave its support to President Roosevelt's wartime policies, including that of Japanese American internment.[10]

According to historian Harvey Klehr, the NLG was allied with the Communist Party; in the 1930s a significant number of NLG founders had been members or fellow travelers of the Communist Party USA,[11] including Riemer and Joseph Brodsky of the CP's International Labor Defense auxiliary.[7] During the McCarthy era, the NLG was accused by Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. as well as the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a Communist front organization.[12]


Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly tried to get successive Attorneys General to declare the NLG a "subversive organization," but without success.[13]

In 1944 the Special House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) chaired by Texas Congressman Martin Dies Jr. published a brief history of the NLG in its massive and controversial "Appendix — Part IX" cataloging so-called "Communist Front Organizations" and their supporters.[14] This report charged that the NLG, despite being promoted as a "professional organization of liberal lawyers" had proven itself by its actions to be "just one more highly deceptive Communist-operated front organization, primarily intended to serve the interests of the Communist Party of the United States..."[3]

The 1944 HUAC history asserted that the NLG was merely "a streamlined edition of the International Juridical Organization", a Communist Party mass organization established in 1931.[15] The document charged that "the National Lawyers Guild has faithfully followed the line of the Communist Party on numerous issues and has proven itself an important bulwark in defense of that party, its members, and organizations under its control."[16] Particularly damning in HUAC's eyes was the NLG's reversal of position on the war in Europe after the June 22, 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union by the forces of Nazi Germany, with an October resolution by the previously anti-war organization offering "unlimited support to all measures necessary to the defeat of Hitlerism" and supporting the Roosevelt administration's policy of "'all out aid' and full collaboration with Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and other nations resisting Fascist aggression."[17]


In January 1950, the NLG published a report for US President Harry S. Truman that accused the FBI of "systematic search by illegal methods" into the politics of thousands of private citizens, reported the Washington Post. The report focused on FBI methods used against alleged communist Judith Coplon. The report recommended that the President stop such practices. It also recommended that the President appoint a committee of private citizens to investigate the FBI. Contributors to the report were NLG president Clifford J. Durr, Frederick K. Beutel, Thomas I. Emmerson, O. John Rogge, James A. Cobb, Joseph Forer, and Robert J. Silberstein.[18]

On September 21, 1950, HUAC responded with Report on the National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party. The HUAC report accused the NLG of playing a part in "an overall Communist strategy aimed at weakening our nation's defenses against the international Communist conspiracy."[19][20] The report advocated that Guild members be barred from federal employment in light of the organization's alleged subversive character.[21][22]

In 1954, the NLG New York chapter elected Frank Serri as president. Other officers included: Hubert T. Delany, Osmond K. Fraenkel, Leo J. Linder, Harold M. Phillips, David L. Weissman, Julius Cohen, and Simon Schachter. Directors included: Bella Abzug, Gloria Agrin, Michael B. Atkins, Benjamin H. Booth, Edward J. Cambridge, Harold Cammer, William B. Cherevas, George H. Cohen, Frank Donner, Issac C. Donner, Stanley Faulkner, Royal W. France, Nathan Frankel, Doris Peterson Galen, Murray Gordon, Charles Haydon, Lazaar Henkin, Bernard L. Jaffe, H. Leonard King, Rhoda Lakes, Mendel Lurie, Edward J. Malament, Stanley J. Mayer, Basil Pollitt, Samuel Rosenberg, Arnold E. Rosenblum, Barney Rosenstein, Simon Rosenstein, Mildred Roth, Harry Sacher, Arthur Schutzer, Elias M. Schwarzbart, Moses B. Sherr, Kenneth L. Shorter, Leonard P. Simpson, Lorna Rissler Wallach, and Henry R. Wolf.[23]

In 1958, the US Government determined that the NLG could not be declared subversive.[24]


Again in 1974, the US Government determined that the NLG could not be declared subversive.[24]

In 1989 the FBI admitted its continued efforts to investigate and disrupt the NLG in the period from 1940 to 1975.[24]


In 2005, NLG member Lynne Stewart was found guilty of violating Special Administrative Measures imposed on her client Omar Abdel Rahman and was sentenced in 2010 to 10 years in prison.[25] The NLG mounted a campaign on her behalf.[26]

In 2011, lawyers associated with the NLG became involved in the Occupy movement in the United States, making use of temporary restraining orders on behalf of encamped activists in an effort to forestall the forced dispersal of their sites by law enforcement.[27] Charging that the Occupy movement was the subject of a "coordinated national crackdown," NLG lawyers filed actions in Boston, New York City, San Diego, Fort Myers, Atlanta, and other cities seeking the temporary prohibition of site removal efforts.[27]


Past guild presidents have included Dobby Walker (the first female President of the NLG, first serving in 1970 and member of the 1972 "Dream Team" that successfully defended Angela Davis using innovative litigation techniques that are now mainstream)[28], Marjorie Cohn (a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and author), and Azadeh Shahshahani (the first woman of color to be President of the NLG and a human rights attorney who defends the rights of immigrants and Muslims in the United States South). Heidi Boghosian served as its Executive Director for 15 years, from 1999 to 2014.

Membership and structureEdit

Full membership in the NLG is open to lawyers, law students, legal workers (including legal secretaries, legal investigators, paralegals, law collective members, and jailhouse lawyers). Prior to the 1972 NLG National Convention, held in Boulder, Colorado, membership was only open to lawyers. Members now include labor organizers, tribal sovereignty activists, civil liberties advocates, civil rights advocates, environmentalists, and G.I. rights counselors.[29][citation needed]

As of 2003, the NLG consisted of 42 local chapters grouped in 9 geographic regions.[22]

Pooja Gehi is the current Executive Director.[30]

Program and committeesEdit

The NLG web site lists the following as their main purposes:

  • to eliminate racism;
  • to safeguard and strengthen the rights of workers, women, farmers and minority groups, upon whom the welfare of the entire nation depends;
  • to maintain and protect our civil rights and liberties in the face of persistent attacks upon them;
  • to use the law as an instrument for the protection of the people, rather than for their repression.

The NLG has historically been noted for championing of progressive and left-wing causes.[31]

Currently, the NLG opposes the PATRIOT Act, corporate globalization, the World Trade Organization, and has called for the adoption of "the Plan of Action from the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance." The NLG also helps to train and provide legal observers for political demonstrations. The NLG has supported Palestinian rights and a number of other causes.[citation needed] With the Center for Constitutional Rights, the NLG published a revised Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook, and annually distributes thousands of copies to inmates seeking legal information and resources.[32]

In November 2007, the NLG passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of then President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.[33]

Most of the work of the Guild is done by committees, project and task forces. These include[34]


The NLG is a dues-paying membership organization, with income-based sliding scale rates ranging from $15 to $500 per annum used in 2011.[47]


The first journal of the NLG was the National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, first issued in December 1937 and then terminated in July 1940.[48] This was succeeded in October 1940 by a new quarterly called Lawyers Guild Review, which was published continuously through the year 1960.[49] The publication's editorial office was moved to Los Angeles and its name was briefly changed from 1961 through 1964 to Law in Transition, followed by a change in 1965 to Guild Practitioner.[50] In 2009, the journal once again changed name to National Lawyers Guild Review, shortening to NLG Review.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Rabinowitz and Ledwith 1987, pp. 7–8
  2. ^ a b Peter Erlinder, "National Lawyers Guild: History," National Lawyers Guild,
  3. ^ a b Dies 1944, p. 1267
  4. ^ a b Lobel, pg. 2; Swidler and Henderson, pg. 243.
  5. ^ Keri A. Myers and Jan Hilley "Guide to the National Lawyers Guild Records: Historical/Biographical Note," Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Bobst Library, New York University, New York City.
  6. ^ "Guide to the Abraham Unger Papers TAM.157: Historical/Biographical Note". Tamiment Library. January 2017. Retrieved 5 August 2017.
  7. ^ a b Mark Decker, "A Lot Depends..." in Harold Bloom (ed.), "Richard Wright's Native Son. Langhorne, PA: Chelsea House, 1998; pg. 180.
  8. ^ Rabinowitz, Victor; Ledwith, Tim, eds. (1987). A History of the National Lawyers Guild: 1937-1987. The National Lawyers Guild. Retrieved 14 May 2019. I am sure that the results of this meeting will be worth while. It is a time for progressive and constructive thinking, and having known most of you intimately for many years, I have every confidence that your deliberations will affect the welfare of your own profession and the well-being of the country at large. I send to you my hearty felicitations and warm personal regards. -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt February 18, 1937, in a letter to the founding convention.
  9. ^ Victor Rabinowitz, quoted in Decker, "A Lot Depends...", pg. 180.
  10. ^ Peter H. Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983; pp. 180-181.
  11. ^ Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade. New York: Basic Books, 1984; pg. 379.
  12. ^ "In 1950 the House Un-American Activities Committee issued a report denouncing the Guild as 'the foremost legal bulwark of the Communist Party,' and in 1953 Attorney-General Herbert Brownell attacked the Guild as 'the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.'"Michael Powell, "Anatomy of a Counter-Bar Association: The Chicago Council of Lawyers,"[dead link] Law and Social Inquiry, vol. 4, no. 3, pg. 503
  13. ^ Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. New York: Little, Brown, 1998; pg. 224.
  14. ^ Dies 1944
  15. ^ Dies 1944, p. 1268
  16. ^ Dies 1944, p. 1269
  17. ^ Dies 1944, p. 1273
  18. ^ Friendly, Alfred (23 January 1950). "Lawyers Accuse FBI of Probing Beliefs". Washington Post. p. 4.
  19. ^ Wood 1950, p. 6
  20. ^ Ginger and Tobin 1988, p. 117
  21. ^ Wood 1950, p. 21
  22. ^ a b Jesse Rigsby, "NLG: The Legal Fifth Column," Front Page Magazine," April 25, 2003.
  23. ^ "Lawyers Guild Elects: Local Chapter Names Frank Serri to be its President". New York Times. 24 May 1954. p. 29. Retrieved 6 October 2018.
  24. ^ a b c William Glaberson. "F.B.I. Admits Bid to Disrupt Lawyers Guild" in The New York Times, October 13, 1989
  25. ^ Mary Reinholz (March 13, 2017). "Controversial 'Fighting Activist Attorney' Lynne Stewart Mourned at Funeral". Bedford & Bowery.
  26. ^ "National Lawyers Guild Stands with Lynne Stewart". National Lawyers Guild. February 28, 2012.
  27. ^ a b Nathan Tempey, "NLG Challenges Occupy Crackdowns," National Lawyers Guild, November 22, 2011.
  28. ^ "Harvard Law School Video Archives,"
  29. ^ "Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild: About," National Lawyers Guild,
  30. ^ "Board and Staff | National Lawyers Guild". Retrieved 17 January 2013.
  31. ^ David Margolick, "The Law: At the Bar," New York Times, December 11, 1987.
  32. ^ Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook
  33. ^ James M. Leas, "National Lawyers Guild Backs Impeachment," Media With Conscience, November 27, 2007.
  34. ^ "Committees,"
  35. ^ NLG International Committee website,
  36. ^ NLG-IC Africa Subcommittee Website,
  37. ^ NLG-IC Cuba Subcommittee website,
  38. ^ NLG-IC Free Palestine Subcommittee website,
  39. ^ NLG-IC Haiti Subcommittee website,
  40. ^ NLG-IC International Labor Justice working group website,
  41. ^ NLG-IC Korean Peace Project website,
  42. ^ NLG-IC Philippines Subcommittee website,
  43. ^ NLG-IC Task Force on the Americas website,
  44. ^ NLG-IC United Nations Subcommittee website,
  45. ^ Military Law Task Force website,
  46. ^ NLG National Immigration Project,
  47. ^ "Join and Renew," National Lawyers Guild, Retrieved December 2, 2011.
  48. ^ National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, Washington, DC: The Guild, 1937-40. OCLC WorldCat number 1759280.
  49. ^ Lawyers Guild Review, Washington, DC: National Lawyers Guild, 1940-1960. ISSN number 0734-1598.
  50. ^ Law in Transition, Los Angeles: National Lawyers Guild, 1961-1963. ISSN number 0734-158X.


Further readingEdit

  • Finan, Christopher M. From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.
  • Heard, Alex. The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South. New York: Harper, 2010.
  • Lobel, Jules. Success Without Victory: Lost Legal Battles and the Long Road to Justice in America. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
  • Swidler, Joseph Charles and Henderson, A. Scott. Power and the Public Interest: The Memoirs of Joseph C. Swidler. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002.

External linksEdit