Serving as an Advocate for the Profession and the Public
The Alabama State Bar (ASB) is the official statewide organization of lawyers in Alabama. Since 1923, when the Alabama State Bar was created by an act of the legislature, ASB programs and activities have continuously served the public and improved the justice system.
The Alabama State Bar is dedicated to promoting the professional responsibility and competence of its members, improving the administration of justice and increasing the public understanding of and respect for the law.
The values that guide the state bar are trust, integrity and service. The ASB has long served a dual role as an advocate for the profession and the public. It is often difficult to separate these two responsibilities, but during the last few decades, with the growing complexity of society and our legal system, the ASB’s public role has gained both emphasis and breadth.
Since its creation as a mandatory bar association, the ASB has initiated programs addressing a wide range of public concerns from merit selection of judges to securing adequate funding for representing indigent defendants; from ensuring that non-lawyers sit on disciplinary panels to encouraging the use of mediation as an alternative method of dispute resolution. State bar positions play an influential role in determining public and social policy in state and national forums.
The Alabama State Bar is composed principally of practicing attorneys, judges, law teachers and non-practicing lawyers who are business executives, government officials, court administrators and more. The bar represents practitioners in specialized areas of law, as well as affiliated, law-related organizations and groups with special interests or needs.
The bar serves as the voice of the legal practitioner in Alabama. It proposes model rules of professional conduct which govern the daily business and ethical practice of lawyers for adoption by the Alabama Supreme Court.
A meeting prior to the formation of a statewide bar association of Alabama was held in Montgomery on December 13, 1878. On January 15, 1879, delegates from the bar of each county met at a preliminary conference in the hall of the Alabama House of Representatives for organizing the state bar association. At this conference, ending January 20, 1879, the constitution and bylaws of the Alabama State Bar were adopted and officers were elected to serve until the first meeting set for the first Tuesday in December 1879.
W. L. Bragg of Montgomery was elected the first president of the Alabama State Bar. Thus, the state bar was founded and on February 12, 1879, an act incorporating the Alabama State Bar was approved by the governor.
On December 4, 1879, the first meeting of the bar was held in Montgomery and E. W. Pettus of Dallas County was elected president. At the suggestion of Thomas Goode Jones of Montgomery at the annual meeting in 1881, a committee was created and charged with the responsibility of adopting a code of legal ethics for the bar, which became the first code of legal ethics in the country. The Alabama Code of Ethics was adopted by the bar at its annual meeting in 1887 and was the foundation of the Canons of Ethics adopted by the American Bar Association.
The state bar, as a voluntary body, continued working toward the improvement of the legal profession, but it was not until August 9, 1923, that the efforts of the bar culminated in the approval of an act of the Alabama Legislature providing for the organization, regulation and government of the Alabama State Bar, thereby creating an “integrated bar” as we now know it.
The “integrated bar” is a system in which lawyers must enroll in a state bar before receiving a license to practice law. This is a pre-condition that is unique to the legal profession. An integrated or mandatory bar exists today in a number of states.
As a result of this act, the first meeting of the Alabama State Bar Commission was held January 8, 1924, when the board of commissioners appointed the first board of examiners and adopted rules regulating requirements for admission to practice law and governing the conduct of attorneys in Alabama.
In 1923, the Alabama legislature passed a bill integrating the Alabama State Bar with state government. Integration made membership in a traditionally voluntary association mandatory, thereby allowing the Alabama Supreme Court to better regulate the legal profession.
The state bar’s enabling legislation appears in §§34-3-1 through 88, Code of Alabama (1975). Under this chapter and rules of the supreme court, the state bar serves a dual role. First, the state bar is the licensing and regulatory agency for lawyers in Alabama. The state bar protects the public by ensuring that lawyers who are granted licenses are not only minimally competent to practice law but also abide by the profession’s ethical standards. Second, the state bar is a private association with responsibilities largely of a service nature including education, publications and improvement of the administration of justice. These activities benefit the legal profession as well as the general public.
The state bar is unlike a traditional state agency which ordinarily operates under the executive branch of government. The supreme court has duly noted that “members of the bar of Alabama are members of a private incorporated association.”
State bar members are officers of the court irrespective of the fact that the state bar was created under the aegis of legislation. The state bar is self-funded through license fees and dues paid by its members.
Although the bar is subject to certain legislative controls relating to its fiscal operations, the Board of Bar Commissioners exercises a judicial function under state law in administering the supreme court’s rules and is subject to its oversight.
For this reason, the Board of Bar Commissioners is an arm of the court. As an arm of the court, the commission’s employees are non-merit employees, as are employees of the judicial branch, fulfilling responsibilities entrusted to the commission by the Alabama Supreme Court.
Membership in the state bar is open to lawyers admitted to practice and in good standing before the bar of Alabama, as well as to members of the profession in good standing in any other state.
The Alabama State Bar’s influence today stems from both the number and diversity of its membership. Members represent all lawyers admitted to practice in Alabama.
Board of Bar Commissioners: The Board of Bar Commissioners is comprised of 74 members. A simple representational formula allows many diverse associations of lawyers within the state to be represented in this forum. The Executive Council is composed of the president, president-elect, vice president, secretary/executive director and three members-at-large chosen from the Board of Bar Commissioners. The immediate past-president is also a member of this body. All officers are elected to serve one-year terms.
The President: The president serves for one association year which begins at the close of the annual meeting (held each year in July). The president is the official spokesperson in expressing the policies of the state bar as determined by the Board of Bar Commissioners. Unless otherwise provided, the president appoints the chairs and members of standing committees and task forces.
The President-Elect: The president-elect serves a term of one association year and performs duties as the president may assign, or the duties of the president, should the president become disabled and unable to perform the duties of office.
Sections, Committees and Task Forces: The state bar’s current structure includes 31 specialized law sections, 16 standing committees and nine task forces. These groups publish material dealing with their field of expertise, much of which is not available through commercial publishers. These units also sponsor continuing legal education (CLE) conferences or seminars, monitor legislation, conduct studies and may make policy recommendations to the Board of Bar Commissioners.
Sections: Range in size from approximately 20 members to more than 1,000 members. Each section draws its membership from lawyers or judges with common professional interests. They operate much like mini-bar associations with their own officers, dues schedule and committees. They address professional development, improvement of laws and continuing legal education in a variety of substantive law fields. Sections have sub-committees which tackle specialized single legal issues that may be part of the overall section jurisdiction. Standing committees and task forces have smaller memberships and generally focus on specific assignments or narrower issues.
Offices: The Alabama State Bar is headquartered at 415 Dexter Avenue in Montgomery. In 1964, pledges and donations by bar members made for a debt-free bar headquarters building with paid-for furnishings. The original building contained six offices, a library, an assembly room and a membership file room, plus a print shop added in 1969.
By 1980, the bar had outgrown the Dexter Avenue headquarters. Another building was purchased and furnished, again with donations by bar members. The building located at 1019 South Perry Street, across from the Governor’s Mansion, was the home of the bar’s Center for Professional Responsibility.
In the fall of 1992, work was completed on a $3.5 million addition to the bar headquarters building. Member donations covered a little more than a third of the cost. The addition provided 32,000 square feet, including space for the Center for Professional Responsibility. The original headquarters building was also refurbished and included an office for the state bar president and three conference rooms that are used by state bar entities or can be reserved for use by state bar members.
A portion of the previously unoccupied third floor of the bar addition was built out in 1999 to add office space for several of the bar’s newest programs. Also, a state-of-the-art video conference room was added on the third floor, and is available for use by bar committees and sections. Attorneys may use this facility for client teleconferences and tele-depositions for a reasonable charge. A major refurbishment of the first and second floors of the facility was completed in 2002 with the addition of more parking across the street from the bar center. In 2008, additional office space was created on the third floor as part of a $626,000 build-out of that floor and renovations to the first and second floors.
The state bar headquarters building features various public recognitions of lawyers, judges and non-lawyers illustrating dedicated service to the profession, judicial excellence and the public service character of the legal profession. It is decorated with original works of art created by such prominent Alabama artists as Jake Waggoner, Barbara Gallagher, Russ Baxley, Roger Brown, and Nall, to cite a few examples.
The annual budget of the state bar is more than $6 million. No tax dollars are used to support bar activities. All practicing attorneys pay an annual license fee, which goes into a special trust fund. From this trust fund the legislature makes an appropriation for the use of the Alabama State Bar.
Staff: The board of bar commissioners appoints the executive director who supervises a professional and administrative staff.
The staff implements decisions of the board in the administration of association affairs, assists members in carrying out their activities and expedites the dissemination of information.
The staff is divided into several departments: Administration, Admissions, Digital Communications, External Relations and Projects, Lawyer Assistance, Regulatory Programs, Practice Management, Professional Responsibility and the Volunteer Lawyers Program. The bar’s charitable and philanthropic arm, the Alabama Law Foundation, is also housed within the bar center.