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ABA Timeline

This timeline presents a selective history of the American Bar Association. It aims to honor the Association’s traditions, recognize its historical commitments, and highlight events of significance and interest to the general membership and the public. 


American Bar Association Forms

On August 21, 75 lawyers from 20 states and the District of Columbia meet in the town hall courtroom in Saratoga Springs, New York, to establish the American Bar Association. James Overton Broadhead of Missouri is the first president of the ABA.


ABA Membership Is 289


First ABA Annual Meeting In Chicago

The first ABA Annual Meeting outside Saratoga Springs, New York is held in Chicago. Attendance at the Chicago meeting numbers 158. The first Annual Meeting held outside the United States is in Montreal in 1913. The first meeting in San Francisco is in 1922 and the first in New York City is in 1951.


Simeon Baldwin Becomes ABA President

Simeon Eben Baldwin—railroad lawyer, law professor, and the principal founder of the ABA—becomes Association president. Long active in the ABA, Baldwin also is a principal founder of the ABA Journal in 1915.


First American Bar Association Section

Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar becomes the first ABA section. Today, the ABA has 34 sections, divisions, and forums—specialty groups of ABA members that focus on specific areas of practice or shared affinities.


Second ABA Section

Patent, Trade-Mark and Copyright Law becomes the second ABA section. It is renamed the Section of Intellectual Property Law in the 1990s.


ABA Helps Establish AALS, Law Schools Association

Through the efforts of section leaders of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the ABA is instrumental in creating the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). The AALS is currently one of 28 affiliated organizations of the ABA—national organizations of the legal profession represented in the House of Delegates.


ABA Presidential Gavel Inscribed in Gold

The Colorado Bar gifts a gold band for the historic ABA Gavel to President Francis Rawle. It dates to the 1878 founding when Rawle himself buys a 17-cent wooden carpenter’s mallet to use as a presiding gavel. The names of the first 80 presidents are inscribed on the Gavel. Today, it is on display at ABA headquarters.


ABA Adopts First National Lawyer Ethics Standards

The Canons of Professional Ethics, the first national standards of ethics for lawyers, are adopted by the ABA. In 1983 the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the current successor to the Canons, are approved by the House of Delegates.


ABA Restricts Membership To White Lawyers*

The ABA initially rescinds the membership of William H. Lewis, the first black assistant U.S. attorney general, who had been elected in August 1911. Leaders determine that they had acted “in ignorance of material facts” and that “the settled practice of the Association has been to elect only white men as members."


Third ABA Section Established

The Judicial Section is established. Its roots go back to the founding of the Association in 1878, when the Committee on Judicial Administration is organized. In 1972 it assumes its present status as the Judicial Division. Members enroll in one of six constituent conferences, based on court jurisdiction and specialization.


William Howard Taft Becomes ABA President

Taft is the only person to serve as both president of the United States (1909-1913) and as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court (chief justice, 1921-1930).


Elihu Root Becomes ABA President

Elihu Root, former U.S. secretary of state, U.S. senator from New York and 1912 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, becomes ABA president. Root is one of two ABA presidents to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the other being Frank B. Kellogg.


ABA Journal Begins Publication

The first issue of the American Bar Association Journal, a quarterly, is published. It is first published monthly in 1920, “radically changed so as to make it a publication representative of the ideals of the American Bar Association and such as will attract and interest the members of the whole profession.”


First Two Women ABA Members

Mary Florence Lathrop (depicted) of Denver and Mary Grossman of Cleveland are the first two women elected to membership in the ABA. In 1928, Lathrop becomes the first woman to serve on the ABA’s General Council. Grossman becomes the first female municipal judge in the U.S. in 1923.


First ABA Legal Aid Committee

The Special Committee on Legal Aid Work is established. Charles Evans Hughes serves as its first chair. The previous year Reginald Heber Smith authors a landmark bulletin, “Justice and the Poor.” In 1921 the Special Committee on Legal Aid Work becomes a standing committee on which Smith serves as chair until 1937. It is the predecessor to the current Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.


ABA Standards For Legal Education

The ABA adopts standards for the professional education of prospective lawyers and their admission to the practice of law. These standards lead to the development of a formal program of approval and, beginning in 1952, the accreditation of law schools. The Legal Education Section's Council and Accreditation Committee are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the national accrediting agency for programs leading to the J.D.


ABA Adopts First Ethics Guidelines For Judges

The ABA adopts the Canons of Judicial Ethics, the first national standard of professional and ethical behavior for judges. In 2007 the House of Delegates adopts the revised Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which succeeds earlier judicial conduct codes from 1972 and 1990.


Charles Evans Hughes Becomes ABA President

U.S. Secretary of State since 1921, Charles Evans Hughes becomes ABA president. The Republican candidate for U.S. president in 1916—losing to Woodrow Wilson—Hughes serves as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1930 to 1941.


Olive Ricker Becomes Executive Secretary

Olive Ricker, who joins the staff in 1924, becomes executive secretary of the American Bar Association, serving until 1952. During Ricker's tenure, the size of the ABA staff grows from 3 to more than 50.


ABA Headquarters Moves To Chicago

The first offices are established in the Rookery at 209 S. LaSalle. Previously, Association offices were maintained in the law offices of the treasurer and secretary, the latter typically located in Baltimore. The ABA Journal's office in Chicago dates to 1920.


First ABA Medal

Harvard law professor Samuel Williston receives the first ABA Medal, the Association’s highest honor. An image of John Marshall appears on the medal with a quote from John Adams: “To the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.”


ABA House Of Delegates And Board Of Governors Established

The House of Delegates is established as “the ultimate governing body of the Association.” George Maurice Morris is the first chair. The House of Delegates and a new Board of Governors, which oversees the general operation of the ABA and replaces the Executive Committee, are formed by the adoption of a new Constitution and Bylaws.


ABA Holds Referendum On FDR “Court-Packing" Plan

The ABA organizes a national response to the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill, the “court-packing plan," proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Board of Governors sends ballots to survey ABA members, which then number nearly 30,000. More than 86% oppose FDR's proposed plan, which is subsequently withdrawn.


Bill Of Rights Committee Forms, Files Briefs

ABA President Frank J. Hogan forms the Special Committee on the Bill of Rights. Its focus is on safeguarding the Bill of Rights and defending civil liberties. The committee is in operation until 1966, when it is succeeded by the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities—renamed Civil Rights and Social Justice in 2015.


Membership Not Dependent On “Race, Creed Or Color”

The ABA considers a resolution that “deals with race discrimination as affecting membership in this Association.” The following is adopted: “That it is the sense of this meeting that membership in the [ABA] is not dependent upon race, creed or color.” Not until 1950 will a black lawyer be admitted to membership.


Legal Assistance to Military Personnel

ABA support for legal assistance to military personnel dates to World War II. Following the war, the ABA and the military services agree to continue these efforts. In 1976 this Special Committee on Legal Service to the Armed Forces is renamed the Standing Committee on Legal Assistance to Military Personnel.


First Woman Member Of ABA House Of Delegates

Marguerite Rawalt, representing the National Association of Women Lawyers, becomes the first woman member of the ABA House of Delegates. She is escorted to her seat by President George Maurice Morris and other ABA leaders. In 1994 Martha Barnett of Florida becomes the first woman to serve as chair of the House.


Historic Presidential Gavel Stolen, Recovered

The Presidential Gavel, used since the ABA’s founding in 1878, is stolen while being shipped back. Executive Secretary Olive Ricker’s interstate search leads to the Baltimore city dump, where, miraculously, she recovers the precious Gavel.


Continuing Legal Education National Program

The American Bar Association and the American Law Institute jointly undertake the first national program of continuing legal education (CLE).


Conference Of Bar Presidents Founded

Under the leadership of ABA President Harold Gallagher, the Conference of Bar Association Presidents is founded. It is later renamed the National Conference of Bar Presidents (NCBP). Staff support for NCBP, a related organization of the Association, is provided by the Division for Bar Services, which is established in 1976.


American Bar Foundation For Legal Research

The ABA Board of Governors adopts a resolution directing the formation of a “nonprofit corporation named The American Bar Foundation.” The ABF is the nation's leading research institute for the study of law, legal practices, and the impact of law on society. It disseminates its research findings to the bar, to scholars, and to the general public. ABA membership is 48,108.


ABA Evaluates Federal Judicial Nominees

The ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary forms an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice through which it will come to play an ongoing role evaluating the professional qualifications of federal judicial nominees. As a result of this agreement, the Committee forgoes making recommendations for federal judicial vacancies and restricts its work henceforth to evaluating nominees.


ABA Marks 75th Anniversary

The U.S. Postal Service issues a special stamp commemorating the milestone. Its design features four allegorical figures from the west wall marble frieze of the Courtroom in the U.S. Supreme Court building.


Charles Rhyne Envisions National Law Day

ABA President Charles Rhyne envisions a special day to mark American commitment to the rule of law. In 1958 President Eisenhower, at Rhyne's urging, declares the first national Law Day. Rhyne appears on the May 5, 1958 cover of Time magazine. U.S. presidents issue annual proclamations on May 1 and educational programs are conducted by bar associations and others.


ABA Magna Carta Memorial At Runnymede

On July 28, 5,000 people attend the dedication ceremony for the Memorial to Magna Carta “erected by the American Bar Association” at Runnymede in the United Kingdom. Nearly 9,000 ABA members contribute to build the memorial. In its center is a granite pillar inscribed, “To Commemorate Magna Carta, Symbol of Freedom under Law.”


First Silver Gavel Awards For Media And The Arts

ABA President Charles Rhyne presents one of the first Silver Gavel Awards for Sidney Lumet’s classic jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men. ABA presidents annually present these awards to honor outstanding efforts to foster public understanding of law. Categories are books, commentary, documentaries, drama and literature, magazines, multimedia, newspapers, radio, and television.


ABA FJE Charitable Fund Created

The ABA Fund for Justice and Education (originally known as the Fund for Public Education) is created. The FJE is a 501(c)(3) charitable fund that supports the public service and educational programs of the ABA.


National Judicial College Forms

The ABA, in cooperation with the American Judicature Society and the Institute of Judicial Administration, forms a joint committee in 1961 that leads to the establishment of the National Judicial College for the purpose of judicial education. It becomes independent in 1978, but is still supported by the ABA as a related organization.


Bert Early Becomes Executive Director

Bert Early, who joins the ABA staff in 1962, becomes executive director, serving until 1981. He succeeds Joseph Stecher, who became executive director in 1956. Whitney Harris serves as the first titled executive director of the ABA in 1954-1955.


Lewis Powell Becomes ABA President

Lewis Powell, later associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1972-1987), becomes president of the ABA. Powell is chair of the Junior Bar Conference in 1940–1941. The Conference forms in 1934. In 1965 the Conference becomes the Young Lawyers Section and in 1977 the Young Lawyers Division. ABA membership passes 101,000.


ABA Spearheads 25th Amendment

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on presidential succession and disability is ratified by the states. The American Bar Association plays a major role in the amendment process. John D. Feerick is a drafter of the 25th Amendment and helps secure its passage and ratification.


Leon Jaworski Becomes ABA President

Leon Jaworski of Texas, appointed the second Watergate special prosecutor in 1973, becomes ABA president. He establishes the Special Committee on Youth Education for Citizenship, which is the genesis of the current Division for Public Education, formed in 1982. The Association's organized commitment to civic education dates to 1922.


Chesterfield Smith Issues Watergate Statement

Following the “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, ABA President Chesterfield Smith declares that “no man is above the law” and publicly calls for appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate President Nixon. Smith had twice voted for Nixon for president.


ABA Key In Creating Legal Services Corporation

The ABA is instrumental in the passage of federal legislation to create the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit corporation headed by a bipartisan board of directors, which promotes equal access to justice and provides funding for civil legal aid for low-income Americans.


ABA Centennial, Center for Professional Responsibility Established

The ABA commemorates its centennial. The Center for Professional Responsibility is established to provide national leadership in developing and interpreting standards and producing scholarly resources in legal and judicial ethics, professional regulation, professionalism, and client protection.


ABA Membership Passes 255,000


First ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards

The first annual ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards are presented, recognizing “individual lawyers and institutions in the legal profession that have demonstrated outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged.”


Enhancing Diversity In Legal Profession And Justice System

Future ABA President Dennis Archer becomes chair of a new Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession, which becomes the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. Today, it is one of a group of ABA entities part of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.


First ABA TechShow®

The ABA Law Practice Management Section sponsors its first annual conference on legal technology.


Commission On Women Created

ABA President Robert MacCrate establishes the Commission on Women in the Profession. Hillary Rodham Clinton serves as its first chair (1987- 1991).


Advancing Rule Of Law Around The World

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ABA establishes the Central and East European Law Initiative (CEELI) to promote the rule of law in emerging democracies in that region. ABA rule of law programs overseas expand to other regions of the world, which are organized under a newly formed Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) in 2007.


First Margaret Brent Awards For Women Lawyers

The first annual Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Awards are presented to women lawyers who have influenced other women to pursue legal careers, opened doors for women lawyers, and advanced opportunities for women within a practice area or segment of the legal profession.


First Woman ABA President

Roberta Cooper Ramo of New Mexico becomes the first woman to serve as president of the ABA.


Spirit of Excellence Awards Promote Diversity

The first Spirit of Excellence Awards are presented. They are annually awarded to “celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of lawyers who work to promote a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession.”


First African-American ABA President

Dennis Archer, former mayor of Detroit, becomes the first African-American president of the ABA.


Move To Current Chicago HQ

In May the American Bar Association moves to its current headquarters office in downtown Chicago at 321 N. Clark Street.


First Hispanic-American ABA President

Stephen Zack of Florida, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1961, becomes the first Hispanic-American president of the ABA.


ABA Washington, DC Office Moves

On May 20, the ABA’s Washington, DC office moves to 1050 Connecticut Avenue, NW. The first ABA office in the nation’s capital opens in 1940, with Gertrude Sinnott as secretary in charge, serving on the staff for 21 years.


First African-American Woman ABA President

Paulette Brown of New Jersey becomes the first African-American woman to serve as president of the ABA.


Alpha Brady Becomes Executive Director

Alpha Brady becomes executive director of the ABA. Ms. Brady is the first person of color to lead the ABA.


Mary Smith begins service as first Native American woman ABA president.

*1912 - ABA Restricts Membership To White Lawyers

The ABA initially rescinds the membership of William H. Lewis, the first black assistant U.S. attorney general, who had been elected in August 1911. Leaders determine that they had acted “in ignorance of material facts” and that “the settled practice of the Association has been to elect only white men as members."


Thanks to the ABA Division for Public Education for research and editorial contributions to this timeline. Views expressed on the timeline should not be construed as the official position or policies of the American Bar Association.

Go to - Division for Public Education