American Bar Association History

750 North Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60611

Telephone: (312) 988-5000
Fax: (312) 988-6081

Professional Association
Founded: 1878
Employees: 800
Sales: $140 million (1998)
NAIC: 81392 Professional Organizations

Company Perspectives:

The mission of the American Bar Association is to be the national representative of the legal profession, serving the public and the profession by promoting justice, professional excellence and respect for the law. Key Dates:

Key Dates:

Lawyers at Saratoga Springs, New York, organize the American Bar Association (ABA).
The American Association of Law Schools is started with support from the ABA.
First issue of the American Bar Association Journal is published.
North Dakota becomes first state to require all practicing attorneys to be state bar members.

1930s:ABA opposes most New Deal laws and programs.
ABA creates its House of Delegates that ties state bar associations with the ABA.
ABA's office in Washington, D.C., is opened.
ABA dedicates its Museum of Law in Chicago.

Company History:

The American Bar Association is a voluntary professional association that includes practicing attorneys, judges, law professors, court administrators, and nonpracticing attorneys involved in journalism or other occupations. Although it has no formal authority to discipline lawyers who break the ABA's ethical code, it influences state bars that do have that power. Likewise, the ABA plays a significant role in proposing state and federal laws, reforming the court system, accrediting law schools, and evaluating individuals nominated by the president to be federal judges. It also is a major publisher, with about 90 periodicals such as the American Bar Association Journal and many others on various legal specialties. Although the ABA is the major legal association, only about half of the nation's attorneys are members. It competes with numerous other associations based on ethnicity or legal specialty. This large and complex organization, with numerous committees and sections, deals with trends in the legal profession, such as the increased use of paralegals and the effects of Information Age technology, as well as legal controversies such as abortion, the death penalty, improved legal access for all persons, and the litigation explosion.

Origins and Early Activities

Lawyers played a crucial role in founding the United States; most of the men at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were lawyers. Many early American presidents and other government leaders were lawyers, yet in the early and mid-1800s popular reaction against lawyers and other professionals mounted as part of Jacksonian Democracy. The prevailing complaint at the time was that just about anyone could become a doctor or lawyer without much training. In 1851, for example, the Indiana state constitution mandated that any citizen and voter of good character could begin a law practice. Medical licensing also ended during that era. The emphasis was on equality, at least for white males.

Attitudes began changing after the Civil War as lawyers in New York City formed a city bar association in 1870, followed by state associations in Kentucky in 1871, New Hampshire in 1873, Iowa in 1874, Connecticut in 1875, and Illinois in 1877. At that time many elite lawyers in New York City and other big cities began counseling big businesses, rather than serving primarily as courtroom litigators. In the post-Civil War period, corporations expanded in size and influence, resulting in huge smokestack industries and also an increasing demand for attorneys.

Although others had pushed for the creation of a national professional society for lawyers, Simeon E. Baldwin, a leading Connecticut attorney, played the key role in starting the ABA.

Following Baldwin's invitation, on August 21, 1878, a group of 100 lawyers from 21 states and the District of Columbia met in Saratoga Springs, New York, to organize their profession's first national association. Most of the men who formed the ABA were elite corporate lawyers. Author Jethro K. Lieberman described early ABA membership: 'You could become an invitee to membership if you were white, Protestant and native born, preferably with a British surname, and attended the elite law schools such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia; only then did you have a chance of prospering. Catholics, Jews, women and blacks were automatically excluded from membership. This exclusion was necessary to the elite bar's sense of identity. Any fraternity is defined not only by whom it accepts but also by whom it excludes. The Association also pinned the stigma of immorality on the lower class of lawyers as shysters who talked, dressed and acted differently.'

The elitist nature of the ABA was not unique for the time. The American Federation of Labor, the nation's major union formed in 1885, did not allow women, African Americans, and unskilled workers to join. Likewise, few women and minorities practiced medicine or most other professions.

The ABA's organization was part of a major professionalization trend in the late 1800s. Scientific medicine began with the adoption of the germ theory of disease and new medical schools based on the German model. The engineering professions started, as did the university-based social sciences of sociology, psychology, and anthropology. The American Economic Association was started in 1885.

Although many have argued that the early ABA was a conservative organization aligned with big business interests, other legal scholars have pointed out that Baldwin and other founders of the bar engaged in various reform efforts. For example, Baldwin pushed for electoral and constitutional reforms in Connecticut, while other ABA founders fought corruption both in politics and business.

The original 1878 ABA Constitution outlined five goals: 1) to advance jurisprudence, 2) to encourage uniform state laws, 3) to strengthen the administration of justice, 4) to uphold the legal profession's honor, and 5) to encourage friendly interaction among bar members. Formation of the ABA stimulated the organization of more local and state bar associations. By 1900 most state bar societies had been started, although they remained unconnected to the ABA in any formal way.

Although the ABA generally had little early success promoting uniform state laws, three states (Minnesota, Missouri, and New Hampshire) approved marriage and divorce laws based on an ABA suggestion in the early 1880s. Starting in 1892, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws held its meetings with the ABA. Working together after 1900, the two organizations suggested several laws that states adopted.

The ABA also proposed federal laws. An early example was the Bankruptcy Act passed by Congress shortly before 1900. 'The Bankruptcy Act, as it stands today as amended, is practically the work of this Association,' stated a 1903 ABA document.

The ABA's influence on American courts was also seen in the late 1800s. For over ten years the ABA pushed for special federal courts for handling appealed cases before reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Around 1890, Congress created the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, which followed ABA guidelines.

The ABA in the Early 20th Century

The ABA remained a small organization of just 1,718 members in 1902. Nonetheless, it had made some notable contributions to the legal profession. "Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the early ABA," wrote Bernard Schwartz, "was its sponsorship of the meetings that led in 1900 to the organization of the Association of American Law Schools." The ABA and the new AALS struggled to upgrade legal educational standards. In the 19th century most attorneys were trained through an apprenticeship system, similar to the informal expectations of the medical profession. However, shortly after the turn of the century, the three-year model for law school was adopted. Likewise, the ABA and the AALS successfully promoted the case method of instruction in law schools.

In 1902 the ABA quit meeting regularly at Saratoga Springs; from that point to 1936 it met in different cities as a means to attract new members. Thus ABA membership grew to 29,008 in 1936. Other statistics demonstrated the same story. The bar went from just two sections, each with two officers, to 14 sections with 960 officers in 1935. The number of committees rose from 18 in 1902 to 27 in 1935. Membership revenues in those years increased from $8,255 to $197,877.66.

In 1921 North Dakota passed a state law that required practicing attorneys to pay dues and become members of the state bar association, the two key features of the so-called "integrated bar," or what critics would call the involuntary or compulsory bar. In 1927 California became the first large state to integrate its bar. These developments were praised by the ABA, which soon strengthened its formal ties to the state bar associations.

A key turning point came in 1936 when the ABA created its House of Delegates, which became the body responsible for making bar policy. Each state bar association was allowed representatives in the ABA House of Delegates, thus linking state and national associations. Although the legal profession was regulated by state governments and state bar societies, the ABA heavily influenced what happened without having any formal authority.

Shortly after the turn of the century reformers in most states passed laws limiting child labor. Moreover, state laws mandating school attendance led to more children going to school rather than work. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional both the federal Child Labor Law and a federal tax on goods made by children, in 1924 an amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed to prohibit child labor. The ABA in 1933 voted to oppose that amendment, stating that opposition to the "admitted evil" of child labor should be overseen by states and families. Strangely, just a few moments later the ABA voted against amending the ABA constitution to allow it to take sides on public policy matters.

During the 1930s, the ABA opposed many New Deal laws and reforms pushed by President Franklin Roosevelt, several of which were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Ironically, the expansion of the federal government during the Great Depression led to an increased need for lawyers. For example, corporations needed more legal advice to make sure they complied with the rules and regulations of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The ABA's fight against the New Deal led more liberal attorneys to start their own society called the National Lawyers Guild. A mixture of populists, Marxists, and progressive attorneys, mostly on the East Coast, formed the guild in 1937. This move was also motivated by the fact that the ABA represented a largely elite base of lawyers associated with big business while ignoring the legal needs of the lower classes and minorities.

In the late 1800s a few women joined state bar associations for the first time, though very few women practiced law. In 1870 only five American women were working as lawyers, compared to a reported 40,731 male lawyers. By 1900 the number of female lawyers had risen to 1,010 while male lawyers numbered 113,693. More women became lawyers in the 1920s and 1930s, but most did so by attending smaller part-time law schools that resisted ABA efforts to raise educational standards. Corporate lawyers and the ABA elite tried in vain to purge the legal profession of part-time schools that allowed women, minorities, and immigrants to become lawyers. Decades passed before women and minorities joined the legal profession in any significant numbers.

Postwar Developments

After World War II, the federal government and others were concerned about the possible subversive activities of Communists. In response to this Second Red Scare, often known as McCarthyism, the ABA in 1950 voted to expel all ABA members who were members of the Communist Party or supported Marxism-Leninism. Although that vote was consistent with the bar's general reputation as a conservative association, not all lawyers agreed with the ABA. For example, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York opposed this ABA resolution.

The ABA became increasingly politicized, as did the American culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Issues impacting the legal profession during this time included those surrounding the civil rights and women's movements and then a host of new environment and work place safety laws and regulations. Attorneys specializing in such new areas of the law formed new ABA committees to address the issues and influence law-making.

The law as profession also began to change, starting in the late 1970s when many major law firms, the source of most bar leaders, began expanding into huge firms with hundreds of attorneys. Before that time, most law firms were run more or less like secret societies, with little public information available about their partners or clients. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that professional societies could not restrict advertising by their members because it violated the First Amendment right to free speech and also was a violation of antitrust laws. At that point lawyers, dentists, doctors, and other professionals began advertising their services instead of simply waiting for clients or patients to come to them.

Another significant development that transformed the legal community was the introduction of new publications that featured details on firm management and finances, thus giving lawyers information they needed to compare and possibly change firms. The National Law Journal and The American Lawyer were the two major periodicals that revolutionized legal journalism. Eventually law firms actually sought to be included in those magazines, which each published lists of the nation's top law firms.

Although the so-called elite lawyers still remained the minority of the nation's attorneys, they received most of the press and continued to dominate state bar associations and the ABA. In fact, when more women and ethnic minorities became attorneys, relatively few joined the ABA that historically had rejected them. In addition, separate associations for women, racial groups, and those practicing in legal specialties competed with membership in the all-purpose ABA.

Another rift in the membership ranks was caused in the early 1990s when the ABA adopted a pro-choice resolution, affirming the right of women to have abortions. Although this was consistent with the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, several thousand ABA members left the association because of its stand on such a controversial political question. As Salt Lake City attorney Edward McDonough reflected, in an August 1997 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune, the ABA abortion resolution "had no effect on legislation or on court decisions. It had no effect other than to alienate many of the ABA's long-term members and drive them out of the organization."

The resignations came as a blow to the ABA, which was also soon faced with challenges on other fronts. The Massachusetts School of Law sued the ABA in 1993, claiming that the ABA's role in accrediting law schools was unfair. Over the next few years, the ABA was forced to revise its program of accreditation to comply with federal law and preserve the rights of a university to set its own standards. Moreover, the ABA's role in nominating candidates for positions as judges came under fire as the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that it would proceed with its own nominations regardless of ABA input.

During this time, the ABA explored new fronts as well, including the possibility of approving nonlawyer or multidisciplinary partnerships in which lawyers could form businesses with accountants, financial planners, and other professionals. That trend was already underway in Europe and Canada, where consulting divisions of the Big Five accounting firms acquired law firms. Although some American attorneys favored multidisciplinary practices, some were concerned about conflicting professional ethics. For example, attorneys swore to maintain client confidentiality, while accountants were required to report financial problems to the government. In any case, the ABA in 1999 postponed voting on such partnerships.

In the 1990s the ABA offered numerous services to its members and the public. For example, its extensive Web site included information on how to apply for law school, how to find data on disciplined attorneys, and how to contact paralegal associations. It also informed the public about its free Museum of Law in Chicago, its numerous research studies, books, periodicals, and related Web sites. A tremendous amount of information about the legal system, court cases, legal specialties, and other related topics was available on the Internet through the ABA. According to the August 1999 Profile of the American Bar Association, the ABA during the 1990s had initiated hundreds of different programs, ranging in topics from child abuse, law practice management, and juvenile crime to the legal problems of the elderly and the high cost of justice. The profiler also observed that "The legal profession can be viewed as a giant confederation, at the center of which is the American Bar Association."

The ABA clearly has been one of the nation's most significant organizations, having promoted a society based on the rule of law, not men. Both state and federal governments have passed laws modeled on ABA suggestions. Likewise, the ABA has heavily influenced the court system, law schools, and other aspects of the legal system. Although many Americans have taken the rule of law for granted, many other nations have not enjoyed such stability. On the other hand, the ABA has historically fought for its members' privileges and resisted reforms that would have helped many Americans. As argued by Jerold S. Auerbach and other critics, the bar historically created a system of unequal justice in which the rich could buy access to the law through the best attorneys, while those not so privileged seldom could afford a lawyer. The ABA to its credit recognized the challenge and has tried to promote better access through various pro bono programs, with some success. Similarly, the ABA has had limited diversity in its ranks, and in spite of progress, has remained mainly a largely Caucasian organization. "The data are compelling," wrote ABA President William G. Paul in the October 1999 ABA Journal, explaining "Our profession is more than 90 percent white, and enrollment in our law schools is about 80 percent white. But 30 percent of our society is people of color, and in the next few decades it will be 50 percent. These trends put at risk the profession's historic role as the connecting link between our society and the rule of law." Thus a major challenge in 2000 for the ABA and the legal profession as a whole was to promote a system of equal justice under the law. The bar and its membership remained optimistic about reaching that goal, while critics alleged that lawyers were more focused on their own pocketbooks.

Principal Divisions: Business Law; Environmental Law; International Law; State and Local Government Law; Antitrust Law; Health Law; Labor and Employment Law; Election Law; Administrative Law; Center for Continuing Legal Education; Commission on Domestic Violence; Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly; Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law; Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession; Commission on Women in the Profession; Coordinating Committee on Gun Violence; Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice; Legislative and Governmental Advocacy.

Principal Competitors: National Bar Association; National Lawyers Association; Bar Association of National Lawyers.

Further Reading:

  • The ABA in Law and Social Policy: What Role?, Washington, D.C.: Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, 1994.
  • Auerbach, Jerold, Unequal Justice: Lawyers and Social Change in Modern America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Carson, Gerald, A Good Day at Saratoga, Chicago: American Bar Association, 1978.
  • Chester, Ronald, Unequal Access: Women Lawyers in a Changing America, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, 1985.
  • Drachman, Virginia G., Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Galanter, M. and T. Palay, Tournament of Lawyers: The Transformation of the Big Law Firm, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Ginger, Ann Fagan, and Eugene M. Tobin, editors, The National Lawyers Guild: From Roosevelt Through Reagan, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
  • Jacobs, Margaret A., "ABA Puts Off Vote on Nonlawyer Parterships," Wall Street Journal, August 11, 1999, p. B9.
  • Linowitz, Sol M., with Martin Mayer, The Betrayed Profession: Lawyering at the End of the Twentieth Century, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.
  • McDonough, Edward, "Not All U.S. Lawyers Condone the American Bar Association," Salt Lake Tribune, August 3, 1997, p. AA2.
  • McKean, Dayton David, The Integrated Bar, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963.
  • Matzko, John A., "'The Best Men of the Bar': The Founding of the American Bar Association," in The New High Priests: Lawyers in Post-Civil War America, edited by Gerard W. Gawalt, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 75-96.
  • Meserve, Robert W., The American Bar Association: A Brief History and Appreciation, New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1973.
  • Schwartz, Bernard, The Law in America: A History, New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1974.
  • Sunderland, Edson R., History of the American Bar Association and Its Work, Ann Arbor: Reginald Heber Smith, 1953.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 35. St. James Press, 2001.