An organization of lawyers established to promote professional competence, enforce standards of ethical conduct, and encourage a spirit of public service among members of the legal profession.
The mission of a bar association is frequently described in the words of ROSCOE POUND, legal scholar and dean of Harvard Law School from 1916 to 1936: "[To] promote and maintain the PRACTICE OF LAW as a profession, that is, as a learned art pursued in the spirit of a public service—in the spirit of a service of furthering the administration of justice through and according to law."
Bar associations accomplish these objectives by offering continuing education for lawyers in the form of publications and seminars. This education includes instruction on recent developments in the law and in managing a law practice successfully as a business. Bar associations encourage members to offer PRO BONO legal services (to provide legal services at no cost to members of society who cannot afford them). Bar associations develop guidelines and rules relating to ethics and PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY and enforce sanctions for violation of rules governing lawyer conduct. Bar associations also offer attorneys the opportunity to meet socially to discuss employment prospects and legal theories.
The International Bar Association, based in London, is for lawyers and law firms involved in the practice of INTERNATIONAL LAW. In the United States, bar associations exist on the national, state, and local levels. Examples are the AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION (ABA) and the FEDERAL BAR ASSOCIATION on the national level, the New Jersey State Bar Association and the Florida Bar Association on the state level, and the New York City Bar Association on the local level. Some law schools have what they call student bar associations for the student body as a whole, and distinct, smaller bar associations for students with a common ethnic background or an interest in a specific area of practice.
In a majority of states, membership in the state bar association is mandatory for those licensed to practice law. When lawyers are required to join the bar in order to practice law, the bar is said to be integrated, or unified. Integration is generally accomplished by the enactment of a statute giving the highest court of the state the authority to integrate the bar, or by rule of that court in the exercise of its inherent power. In effect, lawyers are not free to resign from an integrated bar, because by doing so, they lose the privilege to practice law.
The modern U.S. bar association traces its beginnings to the mid nineteenth century. At that time, the practice of law was largely unregulated. People in need of legal services had no assurance that the lawyers they hired had had even minimum legal training. To address this situation, leaders of the legal profession began to organize self-governing bar associations to establish standards of education and of professional conduct. The first Code of Professional Ethics was formulated by the Alabama State Bar Association in 1887. The ABA Canons of Professional Ethics followed, in 1908, and were subsequently adopted in whole or in part throughout the United States. These canons were revised and expanded in 1969, as the Model Code of Professional Ethics, and again in 1983, as the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
In early 2003, the American Bar Association again decided to amend its Model Rules to permit certain forms of multijurisdictional practice for lawyers, i.e., to ease certain restrictions on the ability of lawyers licensed in one state to practice law in another state without formal admission to the latter state's bar association. Among the major issues of concern to bar associations in the early millennium were the following:
- A perceived decline in professionalism among lawyers, manifested by a decline in civility and professional courtesy.
- The preservation of DUE PROCESS and other constitutional rights in light of the wave of international anti-terrorism sentiment.
- A conflict between lawyers' ethical responsibilities and their business interests. Critics within and outside the legal profession complain that some lawyers seek out clients using unethical methods, and engage in litigation of questionable merit in the pursuit of personal profit rather than in the interests of justice.
- The politicization of bar associations and the preservation of judicial independence. On some occasions, bar associations have taken positions on hotly contested social and political issues. Critics argue that the conflict within the membership over these issues distracts bar associations from their primary duty of regulating the practice of law.
- TORT LAW reform. Bar associations continued to oppose any enactment of federal legislation that would PREEMPT state TORT law in such areas as PRODUCT LIABILITY, medical liability, and automobile liability, including federal initiatives aimed at creating maximum allowable damages in tort cases.