Every state has a bar association that advocates for and regulates the legal profession. As vital as these associations are for the lawyers who are admitted to them, they also provide critical services to the public. You can understand what role the state bar in your state serves by learning what it is and for what purpose it exists today.
What is the State Bar?
The state bar is a professional association that represents or strives to represent the attorneys who practice law within a particular state. The precise function and role of the state bar varies according to the state in which it is located. However, it is not uncommon for the state bar to carry out functions like administering the annual or bi-annual state bar examination, regulating the Continued Legal Education or CLE courses in the state, and disciplining attorneys who violated legal or ethical standards for the profession.
Further, the typical state bar also will provide attorneys who are members of it with a directory of practicing lawyers in the state, plan and host social events for state bar members, and provide CLE classes and credits.
The admission to a state bar can be either mandatory or voluntary depending on the state. In addition to serving the attorneys who are members of it, the state bar also provides free or low-cost services to the public. For example, if someone needs to hire an attorney to represent them in court, he or she can contact the state bar association for a referral to an attorney in the city or county in which the person lives.
When referencing the state bar, it is important to distinguish between the bar association governed by the state’s judiciary and bar associations that are privately organized and owned. The state bar is markedly different than private bar associations. It also typically provides services for the entire legal profession as well as the attorneys who are members of it.
Lawyers who are members of the state bar association are in most cases considered to be officers of the court. This distinction does not apply to people who join private bar associations.
Who Owns the State Bar?
When considering what a state bar is, it is vital to realize that no single entity or person owns it. In fact, because it has no single owner, the state bar functions as an extension of the state’s judiciary, that is the state’s judicial system. Every attorney who is admitted to the state bar is considered to be an officer of the court by the state’s judiciary.
Further, membership to the state bar is either voluntary or mandatory depending on the state in which it is located. State bars that require membership from attorneys who plan on practicing in the state are sometimes called integrated or unified bars.
The states that require all state practicing attorneys to belong to the state bar association are:
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
North Dakota is the first U.S. state to make membership to an integrated bar association mandatory. It adopted this practice in 1921.
The remaining states allow membership to the state bar to be voluntary and up to the discretion of each practicing attorney. Every state also allows for the existence and function of private bar associations, which should not be confused with state bars.
Voluntary bar associations are privately owned and operate as separate entities from state bar associations. They also are allowed to restrict memberships based on criteria like ethnicity, religion, race, and gender.
Some voluntary bar associations are owned and operated by private entities like corporations. Others function as extensions of universities, colleges, and law schools.
They exist primarily for attorneys who have similar educational or ethnic backgrounds as well as shared professional goals. For example, some voluntary bar associations exist to offer pro bono legal work to the public. They do not regulate the practice of law within the state or admit lawyers to practice.
Private bar associations can also be organized and governed by cities, counties, and communities within the state. They have the right to restrict membership to their associations and are not required to admit everyone who applies for membership to them.
There are also student bar associations that serve law students prior to their graduations. There is no mandatory federal bar association. The federal bar association is private and voluntary.
Who Governs the State Bar?
While a state bar is not owned by a single entity or person, it is governed by some type of committee or board that meets on a regular basis. Most state bars are governed by a board of directors. The board of directors can have anywhere from a dozen to upwards of 60 members sitting on it at a single time.
Most boards of directors consist of established and well-respected lawyers who meet for the purposes of policy making, budgeting, and other functions. The directors typically represent each of the state’s judicial circuits. They meet several times per year to ensure the proper operations and integrity of the state bar association.
Most board of directors members are elected to serve on one or several of the state bar’s executive committees. They meet with the association’s officers on a monthly basis. They also have the discretion of operating with the authority of the board of directors when the board of directors is not in session.
The daily operations of the state bar is regulated and overseen by an executive director who is himself or herself a bar-admitted, practicing attorney in the state. Ultimately, however, the authority to regulate the legal profession and the state bar itself falls to the state’s supreme court and the justices who sit on it.
What is the State Bar Examination?
The state bar in every state has the authority and duty to administer the state’s bar examination. This examination is a thorough and extensive test that every law student must take and pass in order to be admitted to the state bar. I
f he or she fails, the student will be required to pay for and take it again until he or she passes it. For some students, this process could involve taking the test multiple times before they pass and are admitted to the state bar.
While each state gives its own examination, some will use what is called the multi-state standardized exam, which was created and first administered in 1988. This examination must be given on the same date as it is given in other states.
Because it is standardized, it cannot be given on different days than those scheduled by other states. The test itself can take upwards of 18 to 21 hours to complete and may be administered over the course of two to three days.
States that do not use the multi-state standardized test have the discretion of devising and giving tests that their state bars create on their own. These tests can include lengthy written essay questions that test a student’s knowledge over all areas of law. For example, a student may have to give detailed responses to questions about probate law including the creation and execution of wills, trusts, and other probate topics.
As with the standardized test, written essay tests can be given over the course of several days. Many states including Louisiana require the test to be given over the course of three days before students can finish and be graded on their answers.
The very first state to ever give an examination to newly graduated law students was Delaware in 1738. Other states and territories quickly followed suit.
The state bar licensing agency that gives the test is closely associated with the state’s judiciary. This association is important because all of the attorneys who take the test and are admitted to the state bar will be considered to be officers of the court. Most of the agencies giving the examinations are either the office or committee of the state’s highest court or the intermediate appellate court or a sub-unit of the state bar association.
Most states administer the state bar exam on a bi-annual basis. The test dates fall on the last Wednesday in July and the last Wednesday in February.
Some states like North Dakota and Delaware do not have enough people to sit for the examination twice a year. In this instance, these states give the test on the last Wednesday in July.
Law students are typically given ample opportunity to study and practice sitting for the state bar examination prior to graduating from law school. Their professors teach them how to think analytically like a lawyer and tackle complex legal subjects from a variety of standpoints.
Further, they can take what is called a bar review, which further helps them study and get ready for the state bar exam. The bar review is administered by a third-party rather than their law school and professors. It helps them analyze hypothetical fact patterns that may or may not be asked of them during the written essay or standardized state bar test.
Preparing for and taking the state bar exam can be an expensive endeavor. Bar review sessions can cost students anywhere from $1400 to $15,000. The state bar exam itself can cost $250 to $860 depending on the state.
Further, it can take weeks for students to learn whether or not they passed the examination. Some states do not release the results for exams for six to eight weeks after the tests are administered.
The History of State Bars
State bars are a relatively new invention in comparison to the entire legal profession. While the legal profession has been around for millenia, state bar associations have only been in existence for the last 150 years.
Moreover, they were not formed to regulate lawyers or even serve the public in the states in which they were founded and located. Their origins can be traced to the first association of the bar in New York City, which was founded in 1869. In 1878, just nine years after its founding, the New York State Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and the Vermont State Bar Association were all founded in the same year.
Interestingly, the first bar associations were not organized and created to regulate the legal profession or to serve the public. In fact, organizers deemed these associations to be necessary because of the poor connotation that came with lawyers in general.
The public during these times harbored a deep mistrust of lawyers and judges. They viewed anyone who associated with the legal profession with suspicion and outright hostility. In fact, during the Colonial period of the U.S., a number of attempts were undertaken to draft amendments that would ban lawyers entirely.
Given the poor reputation of most lawyers during these times, leaders in the profession felt it was necessary to band together to advocate for and protect attorneys from the public. These first organizations were designed to bolster the reputations of lawyers and also educate the public about why attorneys were so important to everyday society.
As the public slowly warmed to the idea of attorneys and the legal profession in general, these associations also began to serve the people who initially hated them and their members. They began keeping directories of practicing lawyers in the state as well as individual counties and cities. People could approach these state bar associations to request a referral to attorneys who might be willing to take their cases.
With each state that was added to the union, another state bar was organized and founded. Now, every state has either an integrated or private bar association to which state attorneys can apply for membership. State bars also continue to be a point of low-cost or free reference for people on the lookout for an attorney to hire.
Other State Bar Facts
Joining a state bar is not difficult or expensive. In fact, most lawyers find it easily affordable to join their state’s bar association after they pass the state bar exam. Many state bars have different levels of membership that can cost as little as $22 a month. Higher levels of memberships can cost as little as $55 a month.
Further, membership to a state bar offers perks that both novice and experienced lawyers may find useful. For example, they are typically offered discounts on services that could help them if they decide to run their own private practice. Some state bars offer savings on payroll services, for instance. Others offer discounts at stores like Office Max where many attorneys go to buy office supplies.
Moreover, members who join and maintain active memberships to state bar association have the privilege of being listed in the association’s directory of practicing lawyers. This directory is often published and distributed not only to fellow members but also the public. Having one’s name listed in the directory could help the attorney attract more clients and thus earn more revenue for his or her practice.
Finally, members to the state bar can take advantage of privileges that include attending social events like dinners and luncheons hosted by the association on a regular basis. Without belonging to the state bar, attorneys may not be allowed to attend these events. They miss out on the fun as well as the opportunity to hobnob with people who work in the same profession as themselves.
Maintaining an active membership in the state bar association is not difficult. As long as a member pays his or her monthly or annual dues, this person has the right to take advantage of all of the benefits that come with the membership. If they allow their memberships to lapse, the attorneys could be relegated to inactive membership statuses. They also could have their privileges revoked until they pay their dues again.
Most state bars invite attorneys to join immediately upon passing the state bar examination. They can maintain their memberships by paying their monthly or annual dues on their state’s bar association’s website.
The state bar in each state has different rules regarding taking and passing the exam and joining the association. Nonetheless, the state bar serves an important purpose not only for the public but also for the lawyers who join it. It advocates for the attorneys who maintain active memberships to it. It also regulates the legal profession in the state and disciplines practicing attorneys who violate professional or ethical standards.