National Lawyers Guild

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During the Depression years there were approximately 140,000 lawyers in the United States, almost half of whom had incomes below the poverty line. Four out of five were not members of the American Bar Association, the national conservative association that at the time admitted few women and no African Americans.

In 1936 about 1,200 lawyers met in New York City in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "court-packing plan," which aimed to add new members to the Supreme Court who would no longer rule that New Deal legislation was unconstitutional. The group that met in New York included unemployed lawyers in the Lawyers Security League, which was pressing for Works Progress Administration positions and unemployment compensation; lawyers representing new labor unions affiliated with the CIO; law professors who taught and advocated legal realism; various New Deal lawyers and elected officials; members of the Communist Party Lawyers Club, who were committed to Marxism and to developing new tactics to win difficult political cases; African-American members of the National Bar Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who were excluded from renting downtown office space in some cities and from using libraries in the South; many Jewish members of the International Juridical Association, which included women; and some Socialist lawyers.

This meeting led to founding the National Lawyers Guild in Washington, D.C., in 1937. The Guild's goals included "to aid in making the United States and state constitutions ... the law," and all government and judicial agencies "responsive to the will of the American people." The Guild also hoped "to protect and foster our democratic institutions and civil rights and liberties of all the people; to aid in the establishment of governmental ... agencies to supply adequate legal service to all ...; to advance the economic well-being of the members of the legal profession, and to improve the relations between the legal profession and the community at large; to encourage, in the study of the law, a consideration of the social and economic aspects of the law; [and] to improve the ethical standards which must guide the lawyer." Finally, the National Lawyers Guild was formed to promote the ideal that "human rights shall be more sacred than property rights." The organization elected Wisconsin Governor Philip F. La Follette and Washington Senator Homer T. Bone to its temporary executive committee. It then elected Minnesota Supreme Court justice John P. Devaney as its first president.

Guild members in private practice fought political deportations and anti-strike injunctions (risking disbarment in Ohio), while government lawyers in the National Labor Relations Board faced open defiance in the South. A few Guild members also fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. In 1939 Morris Ernst, a leader of the America Civil Liberties Union (and a friend of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover), demanded a resolution from the Guild expressing opposition to "Communism, Fascism, and Nazism," a proposal that the executive board rejected unanimously as divisive. Amid innumerable subpoenas to appear before the new Dies Un-American Activities Committee in the U.S. Congress and similar state committees, most government lawyers resigned from the Guild. Robert Kenny, who later became California attorney general, then became Guild president.

During World War II, Guild members worked for the War Labor Board, joined the military services and demanded an end to racial segregation, represented unions struggling against race and sex discrimination, and called for an excess profits tax on war industries. The Guild strongly supported Roosevelt's "four freedoms" and worked for a full employment law, Social Security coverage for lawyers and other self-employed workers, a fair employment practices commission, anti-lynching legislation, a constitutional amendment to outlaw southern poll taxes, a public defender system for indigent criminal defendants, and low-cost neighborhood law offices. The Guild strongly supported Roosevelt's proposal, with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, for a United Nations organization to work against all future wars.

Immediately after World War II, Attorney General Herbert Brownell sought to put the National Lawyers Guild on a list of "subversive" organizations. The Guild defeated this effort, but by 1956 had declined to only about five hundred members nationally. The National Lawyers Guild is one of the very few New Deal-era organizations that survived into the twenty-first century. In 2003, the Guild had some seven thousand members and chapters in every state. Among its members were lawyers, law professors, law students and legal workers.



Emerson, Thomas I. Young Lawyer for the New Deal: An Insider's Memoir of the Roosevelt Years. 1991.

Ginger, Ann Fagan. Carol Weiss King: Human Rights Lawyer 1895–1952. 1993.

Ginger, Ann Fagan, and Eugene M. Tobin, eds. The National Lawyers Guild: From Roosevelt through Reagan. 1988.

Lazarus, Isidore. "The Economic Crisis in the Legal Profession." National Lawyers Guild Quarterly 1, no. 1 (December 1937).

National Lawyers Guild v. Attorney General Brownell, 215 F. 2d 485 (CA DC 1954); 225 F. 2d 552 (CA DC 1955), cert. den. 351 U.S. 927 (1956).

Ann Fagan Ginger

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