The Early Years

Historical Context and Formation of the National Lawyers Guild

Progressive lawyers rally around threat

On February 20, 1937, the founding convention of the National Lawyers Guild met in Washington, DC. The historical setting in which the early Guild formed was one of deep uncertainty. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had, in 1936, just won his second term with a record-shattering majority, and the coming four years were widely viewed as the time for implementing many of the New Deal’s most progressive ideas. But despite the massive victory, the New Deal faced increasing resistance.

The political right, which had been in disarray after Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, had begun to rebound. The most visible groups, led by demagogues such as the Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith and Father Charles Coughlin, masked a far more powerful alliance. Many of America’s corporate and financial leaders had founded the Liberty League, an organization dedicated to defeating the New Deal. Toward the end of Roosevelt’s first term, the resurgent right, represented by such powerful organizations as the National Association of Manufacturers, engaged in a broadening campaign against the most important New Deal legislation and agencies. As in the past, one of the corporate right’s most important weapons was the organized bar association.

It was against this backdrop that on December 1, 1936, a group of some 25 lawyers from several eastern cities met at the City Club in New York to discuss the merits of creating a new national bar association. What they had in mind was an organization to effectively oppose many of the positions then being taken by the American Bar Association, and to build in their place a world where law works for the people.

Deep commitments, dynamic interests

Present at the City Club meeting were several men with close ties to the Roosevelt administration. One of the lawyers, Morris Ernst, had direct access to the president. He had been one of Roosevelt’s advisers since the president’s years as governor of New York. Others held important positions in New Deal agencies. The New Dealers had a particular interest in creating an alternative to the American Bar Association (ABA), for throughout Roosevelt’s first term the ABA had encouraged every attempt to block or overturn the cornerstone legislative work of the administration.

Early Guild members Max Krauthauer and Melvin Ofsink fought in the Spanish Civil War.

However, there were other lawyers at the City Club meeting that December evening, among them Robert Silberstein and Mortimer Reimer representing the Lawyers Security League. They attended on behalf of hundreds of New York attorneys who had organized to pressure the Roosevelt administration for economic relief. Among other things, they were demanding employment as lawyers (at a time when $2,500 was considered the poverty line and over half of working lawyers made less than $2,000 annually) in such programs as the Works Progress Administration. In essence League members supported the New Deal, but though they were for it, they were not of it, and on some major issues—the Spanish Civil War, civil rights, additional labor legislation—they were highly critical of administration policies.

To the New Dealers and the Lawyers Security League was added a third dynamic group, represented at the meeting by Osmond K. Fraenkel, general counsel of the ACLU, Carol King, an immigration rights attorney, and Henry Sacher, who represented some of the radical trade unions in New York. Maurice Sugar was not present at the New York meeting but he played a significant role in bringing it about. A Detroit lawyer later to become general counsel to the United Auto Workers, Sugar began campaigning several years earlier for a “national organization of progressive, liberal, and radical attorneys.” He had become convinced of the need for such a bar association while making a speaking tour around the country in 1933.

While Morris Ernst and other Roosevelt administration lawyers envisioned the Guild as an organization that could actively support the New Deal programs and other legislation, the early Guild was a complex alliance of forces with a great diversity of interests. Even before the first convention took place in February 1937, it was clear that the many lesser-known lawyers who had joined the Guild had different, often more radical, political inclinations and were vying for control of the nascent organization.

The founding convention

The first NLG convention took place in Washington, DC less than three months after the City Club meeting in New York, and included over 600 lawyers from across the country.

The convention passed civil rights resolutions demanding anti-lynching legislation, an end to restricted suffrage, and more public defenders. The Guild supported labor’s right to collective bargaining, and to organize “free from employer interference of any kind,” and called for a full-scale Social Security program. An innovative proposal called on the federal government to create neighborhood “legal aid bureaus” to provide full services for those unable to afford legal fees.

The convention closed with the election of officers and members of a National Executive Board. The first elected President of the Guild was John P. Devaney, Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The executive board included the general counsel of both the AFL and CIO, Governor Phil LaFollette of Wisconsin, Senator Homer Bone of Washington, Rep. Maury Maverick of Texas, Thomas Emerson of Yale Law School, Malcolm Sharp of the University of Chicago Law School, and Osmond Fraenkel of the ACLU.

Early initiatives and first challenges

Earl Dickerson, circa 1940, recording "Lawyers in Modern Society," a radio show that the Guild produced in the late 1930s. Dickerson later served as the president of the Guild from 1951-54 and was the first black president of an integrated bar organization.

The Guild immediately set to work.

An International Law Committee was created. It set as its first task a careful study of the Neutrality Act and its use—or misuse—in relation to the Spanish Civil War. The committee’s report, a powerful and scholarly legal argument against the embargo, appeared in the premier issue of the National Lawyers Guild Quarterly (now the NLG Review) published late in 1937. (At least five early Guild members took a more definitive position by joining the International Brigades fighting against Franco. Only two returned.)

The national organization sponsored several conferences on administrative law and the economic condition of the bar. The Labor Committee wrote critiques of several pro-management amendments to the National Labor Relations Act that were being considered.

The New York City chapter proposed several amendments for the 1938 New York State Constitutional Convention dealing with labor relations, health care, housing and public transit. In Michigan, Guild members led a successful campaign to defeat a proposed amendment to the state constitution calling for an appointive judiciary. The Chicago and Philadelphia chapters began development of community law offices. Malcolm Sharp, who had been elected to the Guild's national board, prepared a detailed study of the economic and social feasibility of establishing such offices across the country. The study was endorsed by the Guild and received the support of Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone.

Although the Guild achieved a tremendous amount in its first year, the road ahead would not be easy. Political differences within the Guild and increasing suspicion of radical and progressive movements by the Dies Committee (which would evolve into the House Un-American Activities Committee) would soon pose serious challenges to the organization.