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.