Lawyers Journal

MBA begins its centennial celebration

The Massachusetts Bar Association, which was formed in 1910 and incorporated in 1911, celebrates its centennial anniversary with a number of events this year. As part of that observance, Lawyers Journal and e-Journal will highlight past presidents, interesting MBA trivia and list upcoming centennial events. Material from Fiat Justitia, A History of the Massachusetts Bar Association 1910-1985, by Robert J. Brink, was used for this story. Compiled by Megan Griffith and Bill Archambeault.

MBA created during difficult times for the legal profession


The Massachusetts Bar Association was formed in 1910, and incorporated in 1911, amid a time of "genuine turmoil for the nation's legal profession," according to Fiat Justitia author Robert J. Brink, director of the Supreme Judicial Court's Historical Society and the Social Law Library.

Among the association's original 619 members were such legal luminaries as Louis D. Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who both went on to serve on the Supreme Court, and Moorfield Storey, an American Bar Association president and the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Brandeis chastised the profession in 1905, "We hear too much of the 'corporation lawyer' and far too little of the 'people's lawyer.'"

There was also a crisis of faith in the standards for, and perception of, the legal profession. The Legislature in 1876 had eliminated the "traditional provision" that required three years of law office apprenticeship," and regional bar associations
like the Franklin County Bar and the Essex Bar association had disbanded in previous decades.

The MBA was also formed with a strong concern about including a diverse membership. The American Bar Association, which was established in 1878, had excluded black lawyers.

Storey, who served as president of the MBA from 1913-14, noted that "It is a monstrous thing that we should undertake to draw a color line in the [American] Bar Association."

Women also found themselves less than welcome in the legal profession. In 1881, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Lelia J. Robinson's Case, that an unmarried woman was not entitled to be examined for admission to the bar.

The MBA, which is credited with being one of the first bar associations to welcome women, admitted its first woman member, Mary A. Mahan of West Roxbury, in 1913.

Brandeis, who came to be labeled as "the people's lawyer" and "a Robin Hood of the law," fought against large corporate interest. He advanced the "right to privacy" concept in an 1890 Harvard Law Review article he co-authored. And his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1916 was so controversial that it led to public hearings in the U.S. Senate.

Holmes, who also served as chief justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, is one of the most frequently cited Supreme Court justices; he became famous for his frequent dissents and use of phrases like "clear and present danger," in regards to government control of free speech during war. He was an influential supporter of the concepts of "legal realism" and "common law."

As first MBA president, Olney focused on improving profession


Richard Olney stepped forward as the first president of the Massachusetts Bar Association at a time of growing commercialism in the legal field. A graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law, he expressed concern at the worsening reputation of lawyers in the United States as their numbers swelled. These problems led Olney to open the MBA's first meeting in 1910 by encouraging members to help police the profession, reform the law and improve the bar's reputation.

At the MBA's first annual meeting, in 1910, Olney argued that a strong state bar association was "imperatively required" to help combat falling standards in the profession.

Olney came into the legal profession through his father-in-law's Boston practice, and his strong legal reputation earned him a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. President Grover Cleveland later appointed him as U.S. attorney general and then as U.S. secretary of state. Olney utilized these positions to take on important legal questions facing the nation in the last years of the 19th century.

As attorney general, Olney set the precedent for "government by injunction," so district attorneys could prevent strikers from committing acts of violence. Then, as secretary of state, he took a strong position on the Monroe Doctrine and its place in international law during a territory dispute between the United Kingdom and Venezuela.

After Cleveland's term, Olney returned to private practice in the Boston area, where he worked with other lawyers to found the MBA. He later turned down opportunities to run for president, to become U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, and to join the Federal Reserve Board as its governor, citing old age. Olney's influence, public service and dedication to legal ethical standards set an example for other members and future leaders of the MBA.

The MBA turns 100


Historical nuggets from the Massachusetts Bar Association's 100-year-old history as told in Fiat Justitia, A History of the Massachusetts Bar Association 1910-1985, by Robert J. Brink. Compiled by Megan Griffith and Bill Archambeault.

  • Before the Massachusetts Bar Association was started in 1910, an attempt at forming a state bar association failed in 1849. The Massachusetts Bar Association held its first organizational meeting on Dec. 22, 1909 at the Hotel Somerset in Boston.
  • For the MBA's third annual meeting, a group of 50 members symbolically recognized the association's statewide membership by traveling from Boston by "special train." The group was joined in Worcester, and was finally met in Springfield by a delegation of the Hampden County Bar. President Charles W. Clifford announced that this "annual meeting in this beautiful and busy city … emphasizes the fact that it is a state and not a local organization."Within five years of its formation, 33 of the MBA's 55 members practiced law outside of Boston.
  • The MBA, which is credited with being one of the first bar associations to welcome women, admitted its first woman member, Mary A. Mahan of West Roxbury, in 1913. The legal profession was not an easy one for women at the time. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Lelia J. Robinson's Case, in 1880, that an unmarried woman was not entitled to be examined for admission to the bar. That restriction was removed in 1882.

    Portia Law School, which catered exclusively to teaching women, opened in 1908, but gains for women in the profession were slow to follow. By 1920, there were 47 women lawyers out of 4,850 total in Massachusetts.
  • When the MBA was founded, judges in the commonwealth were not required to be lawyers. Considering the faultiness of the bench to be detrimental to justice, the MBA established a standing Committee of Judicial Appointments in 1910 and lobbied against an elective judiciary in order to maintain a high bench standard.
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