National Lawyers Guild

National Lawyers Guild emblem

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 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."[1]

The group has at times been the focus of controversy. During the McCarthy era, it was accused of operating as a communist front group. In 2003, NLG attorney Lynne Stewart was convicted of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists, sentenced to ten years in prison and disbarred, for helping pass messages from prison for Omar Abdel-Rahman, her former client and mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, to his followers in al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, an organization designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US Secretary of State, and for committing perjury.[2][3][4]



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

The National Lawyers Guild was founded in Washington, D.C. at a convention held from February 19–22, 1937 at the Hotel Washington.[5] Individuals particularly instrumental in the creation of the organization included Harold I. Cammer and George Wagman Fish, among others.[6] 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.[7] The first Executive Secretary of the organization was Mortimer Riemer.[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]

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,[10] including Riemer and Joseph Brodsky of the CP's International Labor Defense auxiliary.[8]

The National Lawyers Guild was the nation's first racially integrated bar association.[6] 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.[1]

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.[11]

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][13] 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.[14]

Past guild presidents have included Marjorie Cohn (a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and author), and 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 commonplace).[15] Heidi Boghosian served as its Executive Director for 15 years, from 1999 to 2014.


The first journal of the NLG was the National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, first issued in December 1937 and terminated in July 1940.[16] This was succeeded in October 1940 by a new quarterly called Lawyers Guild Review, which was published continuously through 1960.[17] 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 final change in 1965 to Guild Practitioner.[18]


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.[19]

As of 2003, the NLG consisted of 42 local chapters grouped in 9 geographic regions.[20]

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan is the current NLG president. Pooja Gehi is the current Executive Director.[21]

Program and committees

The NLG web site lists the following aims:

The NLG has historically been noted for championing of progressive and left-wing causes.[22]

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.[23]

In November 2007, the NLG passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of then President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.[24]

Most of the work of the Guild is done by committees, project and task forces. These include[25]

  • Anti-racism Committee
  • Anti-Sexism Committee/Women's Caucus
  • Environmental Justice Project
  • International Committee[26]
    • Africa Subcommittee[27]
    • Cuba Subcommittee[28]
    • Free Palestine Subcommittee[29]
    • Haiti Subcommittee[30]
    • International Labor Justice working group[31]
    • Korean Peace Project[32]
    • Mideast Subcommittee
    • Philippines Subcommittee[33]
    • Task Force on the Americas[34]
    • United Nations Subcommittee[35]

  • Labor and Employment Committee
  • Legal Workers Committee
  • Mass Defense Committee
  • Military Law Task Force[36]
  • National Immigration Project[37]
  • National Police Accountability Project
  • Next Generation Caucus
  • NLG Center for Democratic Communications
  • NLG Sugar Law Center for Economic Justice
  • Prison Law project
  • Queer Caucus
  • TUPOCC (The United People of Color Caucus)
  • The NLG is affiliated with the International Association of Democratic Lawyers

Occupy movement

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.[38] 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, St. Louis, and other cities seeking the temporary prohibition of site removal efforts.[38]


The NLG is a dues-paying membership organization, with income-based sliding scale rates ranging from $20 to $600 per annum used in 2016.[39]


From its earliest days the National Lawyers Guild has been the focus of controversy and criticism, primarily from conservatives but also from a certain number of centrists and anti-communist liberals.


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.[40] 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..."[5]

The 1944 HUAC history asserted that the NLG was merely "a streamlined edition of the International Juridical Association", a Communist Party mass organization established in 1931.[41] 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."[42] 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."[43]

The Guild was singled out again in a 1950 publication of the now permanent House Un-American Activities Committee entitled Report on the National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party. This document accused the NLG of playing a part in "an overall Communist strategy aimed at weakening our nation's defenses against the international Communist conspiracy."[44] The report advocated that Guild members be barred from federal employment in light of the organization's "subversive" character.[20]

Material support for terrorism case

In 2003, a controversy arose around the conviction of NLG member attorney Lynne Stewart of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists for helping pass messages from prison for Omar Abdel-Rahman, her client, an Egyptian cleric convicted of planning terror attacks, and the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, to his followers in al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, an organization designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US Secretary of State after it claimed responsibility for a 1997 attack killing 62 tourists in Luxor, Egypt.[2][45] Stewart was initially sentenced to 28 months in federal prison, though her sentence was subsequently increased to 10 years for her perjury at trial.[3][4] Her felony conviction led to her being automatically disbarred.[46]

The NLG and other groups steadfastly supported Stewart, condemning the charges and the conviction.[47] NLG Attorney Elaine Cassel stated that "Stewart never provided any financial support, weaponry — or any other concrete aid — for any act of terrorism. No act of terrorism is alleged to have resulted from her actions."[48]


  1. 1 2 Peter Erlinder, "National Lawyers Guild: History," National Lawyers Guild,
  2. 1 2 "Superseding Indictment Adds New Charges Against Ahmed Abdel Sattar, Lynne Steward, and Mohammed Yousry," United States Department of Justice, 2003.
  3. 1 2 New York Post: Attorney who helped terrorist gets 10 years in prison Published 15 July 2010. Accessed 15 July 2010
  4. 1 2 Tim Phillips, "Happy Birthday to Former Movement Lawyer Lynne Stewart", Activist Defense, October 8, 2012.
  5. 1 2 Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representative, Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States: Appendix — Part IX: Communist Front Organizations, with Special Reference to the National Citizens Political Action Committee: Second Section. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1944; pg. 1267.
  6. 1 2 Lobel, pg. 2; Swidler and Henderson, pg. 243.
  7. 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.
  8. 1 2 Mark Decker, "A Lot Depends..." in Harold Bloom (ed.), "Richard Wright's Native Son. Langhorne, PA: Chelsea House, 1998; pg. 180.
  9. Victor Rabinowitz, quoted in Decker, "A Lot Depends...", pg. 180.
  10. Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade. New York: Basic Books, 1984; pg. 379.
  11. Peter H. Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983; pp. 180-181.
  12. Heard, p. 159; Finan, p. 223; Dyzenhaus, Moreau, and Ripstein, p. 711.
  13. "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," Law and Social Inquiry, vol. 4, no. 3, pg. 503
  14. Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. New York: Little, Brown, 1998; pg. 224.
  15. "Harvard Law School Video Archives,"
  16. National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, Washington, DC: The Guild, 1937-40. OCLC WorldCat number 1759280.
  17. Lawyers Guild Review, Washington, DC: National Lawyers Guild, 1940-1960. ISSN number 0734-1598.
  18. Law in Transition, Los Angeles: National Lawyers Guild, 1961-1963. ISSN number 0734-158X.
  19. "Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild: About," National Lawyers Guild,
  20. 1 2 Jesse Rigsby, "NLG: The Legal Fifth Column," Front Page Magazine," April 25, 2003.
  21. "Board and Staff | National Lawyers Guild". Retrieved 17 January 2013.
  22. David Margolick, "The Law: At the Bar," New York Times, December 11, 1987.
  23. Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook
  24. James M. Leas, "National Lawyers Guild Backs Impeachment," Media With Conscience, November 27, 2007.
  25. "Committees,"
  26. NLG International Committee website,
  27. NLG-IC Africa Subcommittee Website,
  28. NLG-IC Cuba Subcommittee website,
  29. NLG-IC Free Palestine Subcommittee website,
  30. NLG-IC Haiti Subcommittee website,
  31. NLG-IC International Labor Justice working group website,
  32. NLG-IC Korean Peace Project website,
  33. NLG-IC Philippines Subcommittee website,
  34. NLG-IC Task Force on the Americas website,
  35. NLG-IC United Nations Subcommittee website,
  36. Military Law Task Force website,
  37. NLG National Immigration Project,
  38. 1 2 Nathan Tempey, "NLG Challenges Occupy Crackdowns," National Lawyers Guild, November 22, 2011.
  39. "Join and Renew," National Lawyers Guild, Retrieved August 12, 2016.
  40. See: Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representative, Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States: Appendix — Part IX: Communist Front Organizations, with Special Reference to the National Citizens Political Action Committee: Second Section. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1944; pp. 1267 to 1276.
  41. Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Appendix — Part IX, pg. 1268.
  42. Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Appendix — Part IX, pg. 1269.
  43. Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Appendix — Part IX, pg. 1273.
  44. Quoted in Ann Fagan Ginger and Eugene M. Tobin (eds.), The National Lawyers Guild: From Roosevelt through Reagan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988; pg. 117.
  45. Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower (2006), p. 257-58.
  46. "National Lawyers Guild Condemns Verdict In Lynne Stewart Trial," National Lawyers Guild, November 19, 2009.
  47. Elaine Cassel, "The Lynne Stewart Guilty Verdict: Stretching the Definition of 'Terrorism' To Its Limits," FindLaw, 2005.

Further reading

External links

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