American Bar Association

American Bar Association

Logo of the American Bar Association
Formation August 21, 1878
Type Legal Society
Headquarters 321 North Clark,
Chicago, Illinois
  • United States
Linda Klein (since August 9, 2016)[1]
Key people
Jack L. Rives, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer

The American Bar Association (ABA), founded August 21, 1878,[2] is a voluntary bar association of lawyers and law students, which is not specific to any jurisdiction in the United States. The ABA's most important stated activities are the setting of academic standards for law schools, and the formulation of model ethical codes related to the legal profession. The ABA has 410,000 members. Its national headquarters are in Chicago, Illinois; it also maintains a significant branch office in Washington, D.C.


U.S. stamp commemorating the ABA's 75th anniversary in 1953

The ABA was founded on August 21, 1878, in Saratoga Springs, New York, by 75 lawyers from 20 states and the District of Columbia. According to the ABA website,

"The legal profession as we know it today barely existed at that time. Lawyers were generally sole practitioners who trained under a system of apprenticeship. There was no national code of ethics; there was no national organization to serve as a forum for discussion of the increasingly intricate issues involved in legal practice."

The purpose of the original organization, as set forth in its first constitution, was "the advancement of the science of jurisprudence, the promotion of the administration of justice and a uniformity of legislation throughout the country...."

In 1918 the first women were admitted to the ABA – Judge Mary Belle Grossman of Cleveland and Mary Florence Lathrop of Denver.[3]

The ABA did not allow African-Americans to join until 1943.[4]

Roberta Cooper Ramo was the first female President of the ABA from 1995–1996.[5]

In 2016 ABA introduced a new ethics rule prohibiting attorneys from using sexist, racist and condescending terms. [6]


The ABA mission, as stated in its 2008 mission statement, is "To serve equally our members, our profession and the public by defending liberty and delivering justice as the national representative of the legal profession."[7] The goals and objectives are:

Leadership and governance

The ABA adopts "policy" (organizational positions) on certain legislative and national issues, as voted on by its elected, 589-member House of Delegates. Its Board of Governors, with 38 members, has the authority to act for the ABA, consistent with previous action of the House of Delegates, when the House is not in session.

The ABA president, elected to a one-year term, is chief executive officer of the association, while the appointed, longer-serving executive director works as chief operating officer. The conclusion of the ABA Annual Meeting, in August, is when a new president takes office, as well as when the main sessions of the House of Delegates take place. The Annual Meeting also gives the general membership the opportunity to participate in educational programs and hear speakers address many issues.[8]

In 2010, Jack L. Rives, formerly TJAG (The Judge Advocate General of the Air Force), was appointed Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer.

Model ethical standards for lawyers

An important role of the ABA is its creation and maintenance of a code of ethical standards for lawyers. The Model Code of Professional Responsibility (1969) and/or the newer Model Rules of Professional Conduct (1983) have been adopted in 49 states, the District of Columbia and the United States Virgin Islands. The exception is the State Bar of California; however, a few sections of the California Rules of Professional Conduct were clearly drawn from the ABA models.

Accreditation of U.S. law schools since 1923

According to the ABA, it "provides law school accreditation, continuing legal education, information about the law, programs to assist lawyers and judges in their work, and initiatives to improve the legal system for the public. 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."[9] Since 1923, law schools which meet ABA standards are listed as "approved".[10]

Legal education in the United States

ABA accreditation is important not only because it affects the recognition of the law schools involved, but it also affects a graduate's ability to practice law in a particular state. Specifically, in most U.S. jurisdictions, graduation from an ABA-accredited law school is expressly stated as a prerequisite towards being allowed to sit for that state's bar exam, and even for existing lawyers to be admitted to the bar of another state upon motion.[11] Even states which recognize unaccredited schools within their borders will generally not recognize such schools from other jurisdictions for purposes of bar admission.[12]

For law students attending ABA-accredited schools, memberships are available for free.[13] Students attending non-ABA accredited law schools are permitted to join the ABA as associate members.[14]

In June 2009, the ABA Journal reported that the ABA had been working "for months" to change its accreditation standard, where accreditation will be the result of what kind of lawyer an ABA law school produces as opposed to "input" measures such as faculty size, budget and physical plant.[15]

In 2012 a non-profit organization called Law School Transparency called upon the ABA to provide meaningful statistics regarding the employment prospects and salary information of graduates of ABA accredited institutions.[16][17][18] On October 17, 2011, the ABA announced it was considering penalties, including loss of accreditation for schools that misreported their graduates employment data.[19] Starting with the Class of 2011, ABA-accredited law schools were required to file Standard 509 Information Reports that included a host of data, ranging from LSAT scores of law students to bar passage rates of graduates. Employment information was filed separately to the Section. On December 12, 2011, despite the ongoing controversy surrounding law school accreditation standards and inability of law school graduates to effectively service their educational debt, the ABA approved another law school.[20]

Antitrust consent decree and contempt fine

In 1995 the United States Department of Justice accused the ABA of violating Section 1 of the Sherman Act in its law school accreditation proceedings. The case was resolved with a consent decree.[21][22] In 2006, the ABA acknowledged that it violated the consent decree and paid DOJ a $185,000 fine.[23]

Continuing legal education

Russell Frisby, 2008–2009 Chair of the ABA's Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice section, at a Rappaport Center roundtable

The American Bar Association Center for Continuing Legal Education (ABA-CLE) serves as the central CLE resource for the ABA by providing quality programs and products of national scope. ABA-CLE is overseen by the ABA Standing Committee on Continuing Legal Education and works closely with experts from the ABA Sections and the profession at large in developing programs and products in a variety of delivery formats. In addition to its own distribution, the ABA-CLE is also delivered via private, non-profit CLE organizations, such as Practising Law Institute and for-profit organizations, such as West LegalEdCenter.


Main article: ABA Journal

The Association publishes a monthly general magazine circulated to all members, the ABA Journal (since 1984, formerly American Bar Association Journal, 1915–1983), now also online.

Sections and divisions

ABA members may also join subject-specific "sections" and "divisions", and each entity publishes a variety of newsletters and magazines for its members (such as Law Practice Magazine published by the Law Practice Division and GPSolo Magazine published by the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division). The first such journal was the Annual Bulletin of the Comparative Law Bureau, the first comparative law journal in the U.S. (1908–1914). The sections also hold their own meetings, such as the annual Solo Day.[24]

Each entity will normally have a publication program that includes (1) books, usually oriented toward practitioners; (2) scholarly journals, such as Administrative Law Review (published by the ABA Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice and The American University Washington College of Law) and The International Lawyer (published by the ABA Section of International Law and SMU Dedman School of Law); (3) newsletters, such as The International Law News (published by the ABA Section of International Law); (4) e-publications, such as a monthly message from the section chair, or updates on substantive law developments; and (5) committee publications, such as a committee newsletter published by one of the substantive law committees.

Commission on Disability Rights

The ABA’s Commission on the Mentally Disabled was established in 1973 to respond to the advocacy needs of persons with mental disabilities. After the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the ABA broadened the Commission’s mission to serve all persons with disabilities and changed its name to the Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law (CMPDL). In order to better reflect the Commission's focus on both disability law and the rights of lawyers and law students with disabilities, it was most recently renamed the Commission on Disability Rights (in 2011). The Commission carries out an array of projects and activities addressing disability-related public policy, disability law, and the professional needs of lawyers and law students with disabilities. Its mission is "to promote the ABA's commitment to justice and the rule of law for persons with mental, physical, and sensory disabilities and to promote their full and equal participation in the legal profession." The Commission consists of 15 members appointed by the ABA President-elect on an annual basis. It meets bi-annually and is headquartered in Washington, D.C.[25]

Commission on Homelessness & Poverty

In 1991, the Commission on Homelessness & Poverty was established by the Board of Governors of the ABA.[26] The Commission is charged with:

These tasks are carried out by thirteen volunteer members appointed by the ABA President and a staff attorney.

Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The ABA's Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity was established in 2007.[27] According to its website, the Commission is "leading the ABA’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and full and equal participation by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the Association, the legal profession and society." [28]

Commission on Women in the Profession

The ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession was established in 1987.[29] Hillary Clinton was its first chair.[29] According to its website, the Commission "forges a new and better profession that ensures that women have equal opportunities for professional growth and advancement commensurate with their male counterparts." [30]

Positions on social and legal issues

Discrimination against LGBT people

In 2011, the ABA's House of Delegates passed an anti-bullying resolution that included sexual orientation and gender identity among characteristics that should be protected, along with race, religion, national origin, sex, and disability.[27][31]

At the 2013 annual meeting, the ABA's House of Delegates passed a resolution that made it harder for criminal defense lawyers to use the LGBT panic defense, which argues that a crime victim’s sexual orientation should mitigate the defendant's guilt.[27]

At the 2014 annual meeting, the ABA passed Resolution 114B, which stated that "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have a human right to be free from discrimination, threats, and violence based on their LGBT status," and called on the governments of countries where such discriminatory laws exist to repeal them.[27]

Gender-neutral language

In 1989 the ABA's House of Delegates adopted a resolution stating that "the American Bar Association and each of its entities should use gender-neutral language in all documents establishing policy and procedure." [32]

Mandatory sentencing requirements

A hearing in 2009 heard testimony from the ABA which stated that "Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy".[33] In 2004 the association called for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, stating that "there is no need for mandatory minimum sentences in a guided sentencing system."[34]

Presidential signing statements

In July 2006, an ABA task force under then President Michael S. Greco released a report that concluded that George W. Bush's use of "signing statements" violates the Constitution.[35] These are documents attached by the President when signing bills, in which the President states that he or she will enforce the new law only to the extent that he or she feels the law conforms to the proper interpretation of the Constitution.[36]

Same sex marriage

At the 2010 annual meeting, the ABA passed Resolution 111 urging every state, territorial, and tribal government to eliminate legal barriers to civil marriage between two persons of the same sex who are otherwise eligible to marry.[37][38]

Rating of judicial nominees

For decades, the ABA has participated in the federal judicial nomination process by vetting nominees and giving them a rating ranging from "not qualified" to "well qualified". According to a compendium of those ratings, the ABA's Committee on the Federal Judiciary began rating Supreme Court nominees in 1956, but: "At various points in its history, the committee altered its ratings categories, making comparisons across time difficult."[39]

The committee consists of two members from the ninth judicial circuit, one member from each of the other federal judicial circuits and the chair of the committee. The ABA's Board of Governors, House of Delegates and officers are not involved with the work of the committee, and it is completely insulated from the rest of the ABA's activities, including its policies. Although the committee rates prospective nominees, it does not propose, recommend or endorse candidates for nomination to the federal judiciary, as that would compromise its independent evaluative function.

The committee focuses solely on integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament; does not consider a prospective nominee's philosophy, political affiliation or ideology; and works in strictly enforced confidentiality, typically evaluating around 60 nominees per year. Nominees are rated as "well qualified", "qualified" or "not qualified". If the president selects a prospective nominee, the committee chair notifies the White House, the Department of Justice, the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the nominee of the committee's rating.

There are several procedural differences between the committee's investigations of Supreme Court nominees and those of lower courts, notably that investigations of Supreme Court nominees are conducted after the president has submitted a nomination. Also, there is added scrutiny with Supreme Court nominees, such as teams of law professors examining the legal writings of the prospective justice.[40]

The process has been alleged by some (including the Federalist Society) to have a liberal bias.[41][42][43] For example, the ABA gave Ronald Reagan's judicial nominees Richard Posner and Frank H. Easterbrook low "qualified/not qualified" ratings; later, the ABA gave Bill Clinton judicial nominees with similar resumes "well qualified" ratings.[44] Meanwhile, Judges Posner and Easterbrook have gone on to become the two most highly cited judges in the federal appellate judiciary.[45]

In 2001, the George W. Bush administration announced that it would cease cooperating with the ABA in advance of judicial nominations. The ABA continues to rate nominees. In 2005, the ABA gave John Roberts, George W. Bush's nomination for Chief Justice of the United States, a unanimous "well-qualified" rating. It also gave a unanimous "well qualified" rating to appellate court nominee Miguel Estrada, who never took his seat because his nomination was filibustered. However, it gave only a "qualified/not-qualified" rating to nominee Janice Rogers Brown.[46] In 2006, the ABA gave a unanimous "well-qualified" rating to Judge Samuel Alito, Bush's appointee for Sandra Day O'Connor's Associate Justice position.

However, conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., conservative Justice Samuel Alito, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and liberal Justice Elena Kagan all received the same "well qualified" rating.[47]


The ABA has been criticized for racism.[48] In 1925, African-American lawyers formed the National Bar Association at a time when ABA would not allow them to be members.

Since the 1960s, the ABA has increased the diversity of its membership. Over time, the ABA’s membership and leadership have become increasingly diverse. Dennis Archer, who served as ABA president from 2003 to 2004, was the first African-American to hold the position, while Paulette Brown, 2015–2016, was the association’s first president who is a woman of color. Steve Zack, whose term was in 2010 and 2011, was the first Cuban American to hold the American Bar Association’s presidency.

In 2016, for the first time, the ABA has an all-female roster of officers, including two African-Americans and one Native American: Linda A. Klein (president), Hilarie Bass (president-elect), Deborah Enix-Ross (chair of the House of Delegates), Mary L. Smith (secretary), Michelle A. Behnke (treasurer) and Paulette Brown (immediate past president).

In recent years, the ABA has also drawn some criticism, mainly from the conservative side of the political spectrum, for taking positions on controversial public policy topics such as abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage.[49] The ABA's official position in favor of abortion rights led to the formation of a (much smaller) alternative organization for lawyers, the National Lawyers Association. The Federalist Society sponsors a twice-a-year publication called "ABA Watch" that reports on the political activities of the ABA.

There are heated debates over requirements placed on law schools by the ABA. Many states and practitioners believe ABA requirements to be unnecessary, costly, outdated and lacking innovation.[50] Some legal professionals and academics feel these requirements promote the rising cost of tuition.

The more recent collision of attorney layoffs in 2009,[51][52] the glut of fresh non top-tier law graduates without work,[53] and the continued expansion of law schools[54] have raised questions on whether the ABA has been too lenient in its accreditation process.

Since 2014, the ABA has required law schools to disclose more information about their applicants and graduates. Required information now includes such information as admissions data, tuition and fees, living costs, conditional scholarships, enrollment data, numbers of full‐time and part‐time faculty, class sizes for first‐year and upper‐class courses, employment outcomes and bar passage data. The 205 ABA-approved law schools reported that, 10 months after graduation, 28,029 graduates of the class of 2015, or 70 percent, were employed in long-term, full-time positions where bar passage is required or a J.D. is preferred.

Recent ABA presidents

Annual meeting

Each year in August, the ABA holds an annual meeting in different cities that consists of speeches, CLE classes, gatherings, and the ABA EXPO.[60] At the meeting, the recipient of the association's highest honor, the American Bar Association Medal, is announced.

See also


  1. Gabe Friedman. "In a First, Woman of Color Takes Reins at ABA | Big Law Business". Retrieved 2015-08-05.
  2. ABA History; For a historical overview see 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, Gerard W. Gawalt (ed.), (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984), pp. 75-96.
  4. "Paulette Brown to become first African-American woman to head the American Bar Association".
  5. "Women's International Study Center".
  7. "ABA Mission and Association Goals". Archived from the original on 1 April 2010.
  8. Fitzpatrick, Thomas M., editor. American Bar Association Centennial—A Century of Service, page 8 (American Bar Association, 1979)
  9. ABA Website; retrieval date 2008.03.19.
  10. "ABA-Approved Law Schools by Year". ABA website. Retrieved April 1, 2011.
  11. National Conference of Bar Examiners. Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements
  12. See, e.g., Supreme Court Rule 7 (Tennessee), Rules Regarding Admission to Practice Law (California).
  13. "Why Join?". ABA for Law Students.
  14. ABA Website; retrieval date 2008.04.27.
  15. "Sweeping Accreditation Review May Prompt 'Sea Change' in Law School Evals". ABA Journal. 2009-06-03. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  16. . Law School Transparency Retrieved 2012-02-19. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. Karen SloanContactAll Articles (2010-09-14). "Law schools give cold shoulder to transparency project - National Law Journal". Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  18. "Law School Transparency – Blawgs". ABA Journal. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  19. Karen Sloan ContactAll Articles (2011-10-17). "ABA weighs fines, loss of accreditation for law schools that misreport jobs data". Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  20. "The John Marshall Law School Launches New Law School in Savannah". JD Journal. 2011-12-12. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  21. United States v. American Bar Association, U.S. District Court (D.C.), text of decree.
  22. "Justice Department and American Bar Association Resolve Charges That the ABA's Process for Accrediting Law Schools was Misused". 1995-06-27. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  23. "Justice Department Asks Court to Hold American Bar Association in Civil Contempt - ABA Acknowledges Consent Decree Violations and Agrees to Pay $185,000". 2006-06-23. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  24. Annual Report of the American Bar Association 2007
  25. "About the Commission". Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  26. "Commission on Homelessness & Poverty".
  27. 1 2 3 4 "ABA Says LGBT Discrimination Violates Human Rights". Associations Now.
  28. "About Us".
  29. 1 2 "About Us".
  30. "Women in the Profession".
  33. "Sentencing Commission Takes New Look at Mandatory Minimums". Third Branch News. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. June 1, 2010.
  34. "Sentencing Commission Takes New Look at Mandatory Minimums". Third Branch News. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. July 2004.
  35. Green, Elizabeth Weiss. "Signs Of A Struggle." U.S. News & World Report 141.5 (7 Aug. 2006): 30. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
  36. Berry, Michael J. "Controversially Executing The Law: George W. Bush And The Constitutional Signing Statement." Congress & The Presidency 36.3 (Autumn 2009): 244-71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
  37. "ABA Backs Marriage Equality for Gays and Lesbians". ABA Journal. 2010-08-10. Retrieved 2012-08-16.
  38. "Resolution 111" (PDF). American Bar Association. Retrieved 16 August 2012.
  39. Epstein, Lee et al. The Supreme Court Compendium: Data, Decisions & Developments, page 390 (Fourth Edition, CQ Press, 2007)
  40. "Obama Asks ABA To Evaluate Federal Judiciary Picks - Law360". Retrieved 2016-09-16.
  41. Batkins, Sam (2004-08-12). "ABA Retains Little Objectivity in Nomination Process". Center for Individual Freedom. Retrieved 2006-08-20.
  42. Lindgren, James (2001-08-06). "Yes, the ABA Rankings Are Biased". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 7 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-08-21.
  43. "ABA Ratings of Judicial Nominees". ABA Watch. Federalist Society. July 1996. Archived from the original on 2001-07-10. Retrieved 2006-08-20.
  44. "John Lott's website". 2006-01-25. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  45. Choi, Stephen; Gulati, Mitu (2003). "Who Would Win a Tournament of Judges (Draft)". Boalt Working Papers in Public Law. University of California (19): 96. Retrieved 2006-08-20.
  46. "Ratings of Article III Judicial Nominees: 108th Congress" (PDF) (Press release). American Bar Association. 2005-01-26. Archived (PDF) from the original on 25 July 2006. Retrieved 2006-08-20.
  47. Coleman, William T., with Bliss, Donald T., Counsel for the Situation—Shaping the Law to Realize America’s Promise, pages 321 and 331 (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 2010)
  48. "ABA: Perception vs. Reality". ABA Journal. 2007-11-01. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  49. "ABA Policy on Gun Violence – Special Committee On Gun Violence – American Bar Association". Retrieved 2012-02-19.;
  50. Susan BeckContactAll Articles (2009-01-05). "Suggestions for Law School Makeovers Include Radical Changes – Daily Business Review". Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  51. "Layoff Tracker". Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  52. Penn, Mark (2009-03-02). "Laid-Off Lawyers and Other Professionals". The Wall Street Journal.
  53. Koppel, Nathan (2009-03-19). "Best Defense? Seeking a Haven in Law School". The Wall Street Journal.
  54. "Up to 10 New Law Schools Planned; How Many Are Too Many? - News". ABA Journal. 2008-06-03. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  55. "Carolyn B. Lamm". Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  56. "Stephen N. Zack". Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  57. "Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III". 2011-08-08. Retrieved 2012-02-19.
  58. "ABA News".
  59. William C. Hubbard
  60. "ABA Annual Meeting".

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