NLG Legal Workers: A History

Unlike most professional legal associations, the National Lawyers Guild membership includes not only lawyers, but also law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers. The history of how and when non-lawyer members were accepted into the Guild is worth revisiting as we celebrate our 75th anniversary.

Legal worker is a broad category including staff for Guild chapters and projects, paralegals and secretaries at progressive law firms and legal nonprofits, legal activists and organizers, investigators, jury consultants, law librarians and legal educators, social workers, and others who work to help people navigate the legal system from a social justice perspective. Over the last forty years, legal workers in the NLG have organized and staffed Guild offices and law collectives around the country and worked closely with lawyers and students on mass defense and other NLG projects.

According to legal worker and former NLG National President Karen Jo Koonan, legal workers became a more visible presence in the organization during the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of the Guild’s work defending demonstrators and political organizers. NLG law collectives became “centers of activism” where Guild lawyers worked closely with paralegals, legal secretaries, and legal activists to support the movements of the Left and represent those challenging the status quo. Legal workers acted as organizers and were able to bridge the gaps between movements lawyers and anti-war activists while getting trained to better understand and work within the legal system. Legal workers acted as liaisons, translating the ideas and practices of the legal world to activists and bringing their voices, concerns, and organizing practices to the lawyers.

These early legal workers, mostly women, undertook much of the organizing and administrative work of the legal support for movements. Women lawyers, still at the time a minority in the Guild, supported and fought for the rights of legal workers to be recognized for their contributions, which eventually led to their inclusion as a category of membership in the NLG.

The early 1970s saw the addition of students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to the Guild. At the 1970 Convention in Washington, D.C., the NLG voted to include law students as full members of the Guild. The following year, legal workers and jailhouse lawyers were also admitted as members at the Convention in Boulder, Colorado. The decision to include non-lawyer members did not pass without dispute. Opponents expressed concerns over the potential of losing status as a bar association in some states, as well as a reluctance to change the structure of the Guild. In the end, unity between lawyers and non-lawyers was built around the idea that all were striving to use legal knowledge and skills to support and participate in the movement for peace and justice.

In the mid-1970s, the National Office was run by a legal collective of lawyers and legal workers. The NO staff would communicate with and travel to other chapters and help them to organize locally. By the late 1970s and 1980s, legal worker participation dropped as social movements changed and Guild membership overall temporarily declined. The emergence of specialized bar associations also caused attrition to the Guild as members joined other constituent and specialized legal groups. At the same time, the National Office was reorganized into a staff model that included an Executive Director in an attempt to stabilize the office.

During the 1990s, the NLG struggled with a series of financial and administrative setbacks, resulting in the loss of an Executive Director and a time of serious crisis for the organization. Koonan and other legal workers and Guild attorneys joined together to reorganize the National Office and raise enough money to restore the ED position and revitalize the work of the National Office. In 1996, Koonan became the first legal worker National President of the Guild.

A new upsurge in legal worker membership and participation occurred at the end of the century when demonstrations in Seattle against the IMF and WTO introduced a new global movement in 1999. A new generation of legal activists joined with Guild attorneys and long-time legal workers to protect the right to dissent. During the early 2000s, more than a dozen legal worker collectives were created to undertake mass defense work. The Midnight Special Law Collective is an example of the more recent work of legal workers- law collectives organized as political groups to offer resources and act as witnesses of police misconduct against protestors.

The role of legal workers in the Guild has generally corresponded to the state of political organizing in the United States. Today, with the Occupy movement and the sense of a new surge of activism, we can expect the number of Guild legal workers to continue to grow.

Special thanks to Karen Jo Koonan and the Legal Worker National Steering Committee for their contributions to this article.