State Bar of Texas

By: William D. Elliott

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: January 1, 1996

To practice law in Texas, one must be licensed by the Texas Supreme Court and be a member of the State Bar of Texas. Thus the State Bar is a unified, integrated bar. All attorneys who practice law in Texas are members of the State Bar. The State Bar of Texas is a quasi-state agency, a public corporation, and an administrative agency of the judicial department of the state government and is the official professional organization of Texas lawyers. The State Bar assists the Supreme Court in its exercise of the judicial department's power under the Texas Constitution to regulate the practice of law in Texas and thus unifies all functions necessary to assure access to the legal system and to improve delivery of legal services to the public.

The State Bar of Texas has seven statutory purposes in order that the public responsibilities of the legal profession may be more effectively discharged. Those purposes are to aid the courts in carrying on and improving the administration of justice; to advance the quality of legal services to the public and to foster the role of the legal profession in serving the public; to foster and maintain on the part of those engaged in the practice of law high ideals and integrity, learning, competence in public service, and high standards of conduct; to provide proper professional services to the members of the State Bar; to encourage the formation of and activities of local bar associations; to provide forums for the discussion of subjects pertaining to the practice of law, the science of jurisprudence and law reform, and the relationship of the State Bar to the public; and to publish information relating to those subjects. The State Bar provides Texas lawyers and the public with a system of self-governance and programs and initiatives in the areas of core competency, professionalism, public protection, and public service.

On April 11, 1868, thirty-five lawyers met in Galveston, Texas, to form a new Galveston Bar Association, the first permanent bar organization in Texas. This local bar organization served as the prototype of the Texas Bar Association. In 1882 forty-six lawyers petitioned for a bar meeting for the purpose of organizing a state bar association. On July 15, 1882, sixty-nine lawyers met in Galveston to organize the state bar association. At the second meeting on December 12, 1882, the Texas Bar Association was officially inaugurated with approximately 300 members. Judge Thomas Jefferson Devine served as the first president, and Charles S. Morse was the first secretary. The 1882 Texas Bar Association's goals and purposes were strikingly similar to the modern statutory purposes of today's State Bar of Texas: "The Association shall be organized to advance the science of Jurisprudence, promote the uniformity of legislation and the administration of justice throughout the State, uphold the honor of the profession of the law, and encourage cordial relations among its members."

Apart from the legal steps surrounding formation of the nascent State Bar, the underlying story was the narrow base from which early leaders of the Texas Bar purported to represent all Texas lawyers. The new legal organization appealed to a small subset of Texas lawyers, namely those practicing in urban areas, those with corporate legal expertise, judges, law professors, and attorneys with specialized appellate practices. These lawyers and legal educators seeking an organized bar particularly appreciated the need for uniform state laws and improved court procedure and hoped an organized bar would lead to needed legal reforms. Of the 4,600 men and 17 women licensed to practice law in Texas in 1900, only 315 belonged to the voluntary Texas Bar Association. By 1910 Texas Bar membership grew to 635, and in 1920 it had grown to 971 lawyers.

Early bar conventions were informal annual affairs marked with conviviality and social gatherings but notably without bar officers regularly attending. At the 1884 convention 328 lawyers were shown as members but only 187 had paid their dues. At the fifth annual convention in Dallas in July 1886, the highlight was a debate over quality of legal education in Texas with many arguing that training in a law office was superior to legal education.

By 1899 a rising cry was heard in favor of tightening the regulation of lawyers. In 1903 the legislature enacted laws requiring all lawyers to take a standard written examination. While 900 licenses were granted in 1896–97, after the 1903 reforms only 90 applicants took the new examination, and 16 of those failed to pass the examination.

Fifty-seven years later on the eve of the shift to an integrated bar, membership stood at about 3,000, or 40% of the 7,500 lawyers in Texas at that time. By 1939 only six states west of the Mississippi River had not yet adopted an integrated bar. The State Bar Act creating the integrated bar was enacted into law on April 12, 1939, and was promptly signed into law by then Governor Wilbert Lee O'Daniel. The State Bar Act was relatively succinct, and implementation of the Act was left to the Texas Supreme Court.

At the first bar convention held in 1940 after passage of the State Bar Act, more than two thousand lawyers gathered in Fort Worth and announced the bar's activities as including unauthorized practice of law, regular clinics or legal education institutes, and encouragement of local bar associations. An impetus for faster growth of the State Bar was an attorney general's opinion from then Attorney General Gerald Mann that lawyers who had not paid their $4.00 registration fee were automatically suspended from the practice of law until the fee was paid. By 1941, the second year of the new integrated State Bar's existence, membership had grown to 8,523 members.

State Bar rules regulate the operation, maintenance, and conduct of the Bar and the discipline of its members and are promulgated by the Texas Supreme Court. The first set of rules were promulgated and approved by the Supreme Court on February 22, 1940, and approved by referendum of Texas lawyers on April 8, 1940. Rule changes are required to be submitted to referendum vote by the State Bar members before becoming effective.

The State Bar of Texas has grown from 3,000 members in 1939 to over 78,000 members in 2005. The initial budget was $14,000; the budget of the State Bar of Texas in 2005 exceeded $31 million. The board of directors, the elected officers, and the executive director of the State Bar of Texas are responsibile for the affairs of the bar. The board consists of 46 voting members—30 elected lawyer members, six public (i.e. non-lawyer) members who are appointed by the Supreme Court (from a list of at least five members provided by the governor), the three officers of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, and four minority board members (appointed by the bar president and confirmed by the board of directors), along with several ex-officio members. Elected directors are chosen by vote of members of their respective districts for a three-year term, serving on a staggered basis. There exists generally a rotating process among counties and areas, thus providing some diversity among the board members. Annually the board of directors elects a chair of the board. The officers of the bar are the president, president-elect and immediate past-president.

All disciplinary and disability procedures for Texas lawyers are reviewed by the Commission for Lawyer Discipline, a twelve-person board. Of the twelve people appointed to the commission, six persons must be non-lawyers (appointed by the Supreme Court) and the remaining six members are lawyers (appointed by the president of the bar). The commission members serve three-year staggered terms. The administrator of the bar's grievance system is the Chief Disciplinary Counsel who is selected by the commission. The Chief Disciplinary Counsel is empowered to investigate and prosecute suits to enjoin members, non-licensees, and nonmembers of the State Bar from the practice of law. For administrative and budget purposes the Chief Disciplinary Counsel is responsible to the Bar's Executive Director.

Apart from the official governance of the State Bar through its board of directors and officers, the activities of the Bar includes committees, boards, sections, and divisions that are run by more than 4,500 legal and non-legal volunteers. The responsibilities of these volunteers include general oversight of the bar, providing assistance to local bar associations, developing continuing legal education programs for attorneys, conducting educational activities for the public, and administering the grievance system. Support for the work of the bar and its volunteers are provided by the the staff at the bar's headquarters in Austin and the regional grievance offices throughout Texas. The staff of the State Bar is organized into the following divisions: Administration, Attorney Compliance, Finance, Communications, Governmental Relations, Professional Development Programs, and Legal Services to the Poor. The monthly publication of the State Bar, the Texas Bar Journal, has been in print since 1938. The two most important parts of the State Bar are grievance and continuing legal education (CLE). These two areas produce important services for the ongoing intellectual health of practicing lawyers in Texas and concomitantly for the public. In the case of grievance, a large allocation of the State Bar budget and employees is required. More importantly volunteers from the legal profession and the public are responsible for operating the grievance system. Approximate one-third of the grievance committees are public members (and one-half of the governing body of grievance, the Commission on Lawyer Discipline) are public members.

The year 1963 was a turning point in the progress of continuing legal education for Texas lawyers. Prior to 1963 the Bar Continuing Legal Education committee mostly sponsored one-day legal institutes on substantive legal topics. The bar's Committee on Professional Economics (PEER Committee) began expanding course material to include matters affecting law practice economics. In July 1963 the bar hired the first full-time CLE director, Gene Cavin. Since 1963 the CLE department of the bar continued to sponsor and present one-day seminars but broadened its programming to produce hardbound books on various topics such as personal injury litigation in Texas, creditors' rights in Texas, and appellate practice in Texas. In 1964 a weekly case digest was commenced for use by Texas lawyers. In 1970 an audio tape service was provided for ease of listening for those lawyers who could not attend the actual CLE program. Later this strategy was expanded to include video tapes of CLE programs. Other activities of the CLE department have been the development of practice systems, legal forms and form manuals, and development of specialized topical seminars such as oil and gas and taxation for lawyers with specialized practices. Modern internet technology is further changing the manner in which Texas Bar CLE delivers its course material. Over the years courses have evolved into sophisticated week-long programs held in connection with specialty programs such as taxation, family law, and civil trial practice.

The Texas Law Center, completed in 1976, is the six-story headquarters of the State Bar of Texas and is located at Fifteenth and Colorado Streets in Austin, Texas, amidst the State Capitol complex. The original offices of the State Bar were located in the Littlefield Building in Austin. In October 1951 the State Bar Board of Directors voted to purchase a lot at Fifteenth and Colorado in Austin for a permanent headquarters building. The initial gift for construction of the new bar headquarters building was made in honor of James R. Dougherty of Beeville, Texas, for whom the building was named. The initial bar building was occupied on December 4, 1953, but the expanding program of the State Bar rapidly created an overcrowded condition. The building was expanded, and the adjacent Patterson Building was purchased, all makeshift arrangements. In 1972 after careful study the Bar proposed a six-story building with adequate underground parking. This is the Texas Law Center building that exists today.

An important and dynamic part of the State Bar is the Texas Young Lawyers Association, an organization of young lawyers limited to persons thirty-five years of age and younger. Begun in 1930 as an organization separate from the Texas State Bar, the Junior Bar of Texas joined the Texas State Bar as a section in 1936. The officers of the Texas Young Lawyers serve on the State Bar's Board of Directors and maintain separate programming and projects apart from the State Bar's activities.

The Texas Bar Foundation is a non-profit corporation that invests contributions by Texas lawyers in educational and charitable activities. Originally proposed in 1957, the Bar Foundation was instituted as a project of the board of directors. Its charter was issued on November 19, 1965. For many years the board of directors of the State Bar operated as the board of the Texas Bar Foundation, but in 1977 a separate board was appointed on a staggered term basis. Today the board of the Texas Bar Foundation operates independently of the State Bar.

The State Bar is subject to review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission and underwent its last successful review in 2003. The next review is set for 2015.

Centennial History of the Texas Bar, 1882–1982 (Austin: Committee on History and Tradition of the State Bar of Texas, 1981).
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Law Firms and Law Profession

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

William D. Elliott, “State Bar of Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996