History of the Massachusetts Chapter

The Massachusetts Chapter has been active since the founding of the national organization. Our staff and board work with Chapter members, including law students, to seek justice by:

  • Organizing and participating in Community Activism
  • Educating the community about their rights through Street Law Clinics
  • Representing low and moderate income people and progressive causes through our Lawyer Referral Service
  • Networking with progressive legal advocates through our newsletter Mass Dissent
  • Providing legal observers at demonstrations and legal representation to those arrested.

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2009 Marked the 40th Anniversary of the Mass. Chapter

Members of one of the first NLG-Massachusetts Chapter collectives in their office just down the hall from the Guild 1971 office in Central Square, Cambridge: Jan Saalfield, Jim Donnelly, Cary Playter, Rob Doyle, Steve Kehoe, and Mandy the dog.

In early 2009, Executive Director Urszula Masny-Latos set about to explore the Massachusetts Chapter’s beginnings. She did her research, found names of those rumored to have been involved in the beginnings of the Guild’s Northeast region, and bribed them with wine and cookies to come visit and tell their story. Here is what we’ve pieced together from Kathy Allen, Margaret Burnham, Bob Cohen, Rob Doyle, Roger Geller, Larry Katz, Jim Miller, Jeanne Mirer, Cary Playter, Max Stern, Philip Weinberg and Norman Zalkind.

Boston in 1969 was vibrant with collectives doing anti-war and community organizing (Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee, Old Mole, dozens of others), with widespread campus activism (e.g., Students for a Democratic Society was transforming itself into various factions), revolutionary parties (e.g., the Progressive Labor Party, very “serious” and influential in the early Boston Guild), and the local offices of progressive national groups of all sorts – the War Resisters League, Black Panther Party, Young Lords, National Mobilization, etc. But, while there were practicing lawyers who were Guild members, like Larry Shubow, there was no Massachusetts Chapter until it grew out of the local law communes.

The law communes, as the term suggests, practiced law in a new way, serving activists, representing antiwar demonstrators, and involving themselves directly in anti-war and community work as participants on the front lines. They also rejected all hierarchy – including distinctions between lawyers and non-lawyers – and functioned like many of the groups they served, as egalitarian collectives, making decisions cooperatively and unanimously (often through marathon meetings replete with “criticism and self-criticism”). It was widely corroborated that the men took up knitting and would knit at the meetings. The lawyers took turns answering the phones, and they eschewed all the paraphernalia of private privilege, including individual offices. They couldn’t afford phones with buttons that lit up to indicate which line a call was going to, so whenever the phone would ring, they never knew who it would be for. Even desks lacked separate drawers for separate people; they were slabs of plywoo, with files on top. (It may have sometimes been a hard way to practice law, but it was a great way to live).

The first two law communes started in the same time period in the late 1960s, early 1970s, one by Harvard students (the Cambridge Law Collective – Mike Haroz, Larry Katz, Joe Remcho, Judy Schatzow (later Remcho), Gerry Billow, Lynn Goldsmith, and others) and the other by BU students (the Law Commune), and both were located at 698 Mass. Avenue, in Cambridge, Central Square. The Law Commune included BU students Roger Geller, Phil Weinberg, Rob Doyle, Pam Taylor, Jim Miller, Jeannie Mirer, Steve Kehoe, Kathleen Allen, and others, many still practicing and still activists and Guild members. Similarly, BC students Robert Cohen, Alan Silberberg, Seth Shenfield, Lou Gurwitz, Victor Aranow, and Art Meisler participated in the resurrection of the Guild during this time, meeting informally in a church in the South End of Boston. Other law communes followed, including the Women’s Law Collective with, among others, Kathy Allen, Jeanne Mirer, Sandy Moody, Emily Spieler) which initially took an extra room from the Law Commune in Central Square; and the later Dorchester Law Collective.

From this new activist legal community emerged – possibly facilitated by the National NLG Organizer Howie Price (but no one is quite sure if Howie was sent from N.Y., or heaven, or where he came from) – the first New England Guild chapter since the 1950s. It was associated with the law communes, it shared members, and its office was also located in Central Square. While at some point the early Mass. Chapter had a staff person, Jan Solet, it was, like the communes, initially more free-form than formal, and focused on activism.

The Guild/law commune activists represented the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, tenant organizations, anti-war demonstrators, student protesters, draft resisters, prisoner rights activists, and others, both in Boston and elsewhere, with local Guild members spending significant time, months and longer, in upstate N.Y. representing Attica prisoners and in Wounded Knee representing Native American activists. (In addition to these notable clients, Bob Cohen reported that the Guild represented “numerous hippies, speed freaks, thieves, ladies of the night and other assorted interesting characters.”)

The Guild lawyers supported themselves (barely) with appointed criminal cases, contributions from clients, and by driving cabs and waiting tables. Rob Doyle reported that a client once came to eat at the restaurant where he was a dishwasher – they had a good laugh. The joke was that the Guild attorneys would ask new clients, “How much should we pay you to represent you?” They were inspired by activist lawyers from outside of Boston (Arthur Kinoy, Bill Kunstler), and by older Boston lawyers, like the late Bill Homans, who practiced progressive law in relative isolation before the communes. The (slightly) older Norman Zalkind and Harvey Silverglate opened their offices to Guild law students and supported their work, and the work they all did was necessary and admirable.

By the late 1970s, the communes drifted apart, and the NLG chapter became more important and more distinct, the “glue” holding together the activist legal community. We maintain those critical connections today. We are proud of our work, our past, and our many founding members!

Compiled by David Kelston, an attorney at Adkins Kelston & Zavez and Laura Alfring, fellow at the Suffolk Law School Juvenile Justice Center.

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