Founded in 1881, the Tennessee Bar Association has been an influential voice in shaping Tennessee law and setting standards for legal instruction, lawyer discipline, and continuing education. Today over seven thousand of the state’s twelve thousand lawyers belong to this voluntary association that can boast of a president (Edward Terry Sanford) who later served on the U.S. Supreme Court and others who have held important judicial and governmental posts.
An elite group of sixty-nine lawyers formed the association on December 14, 1881, to serve as a catalyst for reforming the legal profession which had been in decline and disarray for twenty years. Licensing standards had become so loose that virtually any man could become a lawyer with minimal effort and knowledge. The formation of the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) was part of a national movement to uplift professional standards marked by the founding of the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1879.
Annual meetings since 1881 have featured notable speakers such as U.S. Supreme Court justices and presentations by members on current legal topics. From the beginning, the TBA has pressed for reform of Tennessee law; a speaker at its first meeting in 1882 called for woman suffrage. The TBA allowed women members before the ABA did, and in 1998 it elected its first woman president, Pamela L. Reeves.
The signal achievement in the early years was implementation of the written bar examination (1904); later came the requirement of a high school diploma (1925) and two years of law study prior to taking the bar examination (1934). The association pushed for higher judicial salaries starting in 1900, a radical overhaul of the state constitution as early as 1897 (this finally occurred in 1953), and recodification of statutes in 1917 (fully achieved in 1955). The association endorsed measures such as juvenile court law (1917), compensation for job-related injuries (1919), and general sessions courts replacing justices of the peace (1937). The TBA has also worked, as in supporting the Model Corporation Act in 1969, to harmonize Tennessee law with that of other states.
The association formally adopted the American Bar Association’s 1908 code of ethics in 1912. Technically, the code and its successors only applied to association members until the State Supreme Court mandated the ABA’s code of professional responsibility in 1970. The TBA assisted local bar associations in actions against unethical lawyers and was instrumental in the establishment of an agency to hear complaints and discipline lawyers in 1976.
The association offered the first formal continuing legal education program in 1941 and was instrumental in the establishment of mandatory CLE in 1987. In addition to the CLE sessions offered at each annual convention, the TBA sponsors eighty educational programs a year on diverse topics.
The Tennessee Bar Journal, published six times a year, is a descendant of TBA proceedings published since 1882, making it one of the state’s oldest continuous publications. Daily operations are handled by a staff of twelve, including an executive director, headquartered in Nashville. The association’s Web site provides membership information and fosters member-to-member communication.