The Guild is best known for our work defending the rights of protesters through our Mass Defense and Legal Observer Programs, which have been providing legal support for movements for social justice for 50 years.
National Lawyers Guild is the first racially-integrated bar association and the oldest and most extensive network of social justice activists working within the legal system to support people’s movements. We use law for the people, uniting lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights over property interests.
Our work is guided in all areas by the mission statement laid out in the Preamble of the NLG Constitution: “To use law for the people, uniting lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights and ecosystems over property interests.” For over 80 years, the NLG has acted as the legal arm of social movements and the conscience of the legal profession.
The NLG is dedicated to the need for basic change in the structure of our political and economic system. The NLG is anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist and we strive to bring in anti-oppressive practices to all aspects of our organization. Each year, NLG members vote on organizational resolutions, which shape our priorities and areas of intervention. Through the national office, local and law school chapters, national committees, independent projects, and individual members, the Guild helps to support social justice movements on the ground as well as provide solidarity to international struggles.
The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is a progressivepublic 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.
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." During the McCarthy era, the organization was accused of operating as a communist front group.
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 Ernst, 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.
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.
In 1937, Allan R. Rosenberg joined the NLG and remained a member as late as 1956 during his second appearance before HUAC.
In 1937, Ferdinand Pecora was a founding member of the NLG. On March 1, 1938, Pecora become NLG president, noted as a "forceful speaker." Pecora resigned from the NLG during its third annual convention in 1939 after the vote against his resolution disavowing communists failed to carry in the national vote.
By 1939, Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle was a Guild member. According to the NLG's A History of the National Lawyers Guild 1937-1987, two factions arose as early as 1940. External events driving these factions included the Spanish Civil War (started 1936), the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939), and the Russian invasion of Finland (1940). One faction, led by Berle and Ernst, supported New Deal policies. The other, led by Osmond Fraenkel and Thomas I. Emerson, supported Freedom of Speech and Press as well as Anti-Fascism (seen at the time as a Popular Front stance, thus pro-Communist). Other issues supported by Fraenkel, Emerson, the National Executive Board and many chapters included: support for Loyalist Spain, criticism of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and support for labor unions. Berle and Ernst recommended anti-communist oaths, which Fraenkel and Emerson opposed. Many Berle and Ernst supporters left the NLG by 1940. During the NLG's 1940 convention, newly elected president Robert W. Kenny of California and secretary of New York sought to persuade members to return. During a phone call from Kenny, Berle gave him a short list of lawyers to leave as a simple matter of "cleaning house": Kenny rejected the request. David Scribner, civil rights and labor lawyer, was a member of both the IJA and the NLG.
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. 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..."
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. 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." 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."
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. Emerson, O. John Rogge, James A. Cobb, Joseph Forer, and Robert J. Silberstein.
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." The report advocated that Guild members be barred from federal employment in light of the organization's alleged subversive character.
From 1951 to 1954, Earl B. Dickerson served as the first black president of the National Lawyers Guild. Dickerson was instrumental in contesting the proposed classification of the National Lawyers Guild as a "subversive organization." 
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.
In 1958, the US Government determined that the NLG could not be declared subversive.
Again in 1974, the US Government determined that the NLG could not be declared subversive.
In 1989 the FBI admitted its continued efforts to investigate and disrupt the NLG in the period from 1940 to 1975.
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. 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.
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), 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 structure
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.
As of 2003, the NLG consisted of 42 local chapters grouped in 9 geographic regions.
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.
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. 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.
The NLG is a dues-paying membership organization, with income-based sliding scale rates ranging from $25 to $800 per annum used in 2020.
The first journal of the NLG was the National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, first issued in December 1937 and then terminated in July 1940. This was succeeded in October 1940 by a new quarterly called Lawyers Guild Review, which was published continuously through the year 1960. 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. In 2009, the journal once again changed name to National Lawyers Guild Review, shortening to NLG Review.
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