Great Depression stymies MBA

Issue November 2010

In the 1930s, as the nation struggled through the Great Depression, membership and representation were major challenges for the Massachusetts Bar Association.

Membership had been "static" since the 1920s, and then the Depression took its toll. In 1938, MBA President Henry R. Mayo lamented that there were an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 lawyers in the state, but only 700 MBA members, having dropped from 1,250 before the Depression.

The MBA, which was formed, in part, to represent lawyers statewide and include the input of regional and specialized bar associations, had not garnered much participation from those groups.

The MBA's bylaws, which said that each county, city or local bar association "may" appoint a delegate, were changed in December 1932 so that every affiliated bar association president (or their designee) was automatically made a delegate to the MBA's Executive Committee.

Centennial Timeline

1930: At the annual meeting, a member notes that several other industries, including bankers, new government agencies and accountants, are "gradually encroaching on the legal profession." The comment opens discussions that would continue throughout the decade, attempting to define the boundaries of a relatively new phrase - "the unauthorized practice of law."

April 1932: Opinion of the Justices declares that the judicial department has inherent exclusive power to determine the qualifications of applicants for the admission to the bar.

December 1932: New bylaws are adopted, providing a plan for the automatic affiliation of local bar associations under the aegis of the MBA. Presidents of local associations automatically become delegates to the Executive Committee. The gradual implementation of this plan helps address allegations that the MBA does not stand for lawyers throughout the whole of the state.

1932: After the gains of the 1920s, the Great Depression stagnates the advancement of women within the profession. Despite this, Sybil H. Holmes is elected the first female member of the Executive Committee.

1936: The American Bar Association restructures and allows state bar associations to participate through a body called the House of Delegates.

1937: The conservative MBA polls its members, and finds an overwhelming 93 percent against President Roosevelt's "court-packing" plan to increase the membership of the Supreme Court in an effort to secure a progressive majority. The plan was defeated.

MBA Did you know?

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.

  • The MBA began publishing its annual legislative report in 1913 to help lawyers cope with that year's busy legislative session, when more than 2,000 proposals were considered. The detailed report included commentary, which also helped non-lawyer legislators understand possible consequences of proposed legislation.
  • The MBA started offering legal aid as a public service during World War I. Its members helped disseminate legal information and provide legal assistance to soldiers and sailors. One member in particular, Reginald Heber Smith, recognized that better legal aid would improve access to justice for the poor -- and might prevent class uprisings.
  • As the MBA grew and matured, its presidents began to broaden its focus, taking aim at general trends in society instead of just at issues specifically relevant to lawyers. In 1960, MBA President Harold Horvitz founded the Committee on Juvenile Delinquency to examine a societal problem.