Profiles in MBA presidential history: 1927-28

Issue October 2010 By Cassidy Murphy

Nutter leads the fight for higher bar standards

Massachusetts Bar Association President George R. Nutter of Boston, 1927-28, was one of the state's bar leaders who challenged the Legislature's moves to lower the standards for bar admission in Massachusetts, moves that were seen as eroding the very standing of the legal profession.

The dispute originated in 1909 when the Board of Bar Examiners adopted a rule requiring that applicants for admission to the bar had to complete high school or pass an equivalency examination. A Democratic leader, Rep. Martin M. Lomasney, railed against the requirement as discriminatory to immigrants and helped pass legislation that revoked the requirement.

Nutter, who served as chair of the MBA's Committee on Legal Education on "Training for the Bar: With Special Reference to the Admission Requirements in Massachusetts," continued the fight that previous MBA presidents, including Herbert Parker and the Hon. Henry N. Sheldon, had lost.

Nutter criticized the Legislature for allowing "unworthy" individuals to join the bar and then expecting bar associations to clean up the mess through disciplinary hearings when some of those lawyers ran into problems.

It was a paradox, Nutter said, that "the Commonwealth should prescribe such low standards for admissions to fill the Bar with ill-trained lawyers, and then expect the Bar Associations to bring proceedings to disbar those who never should have been admitted in the beginning."

Nutter suggested that the state should place "disciplinary measures in the hands of officials appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court."

But it wasn't until after an April 1932 ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court (279 Mass. 607) that the matter was settled: The Court declared that the judiciary had exclusive responsibility for determining the qualifications of bar admission. In 1934, the SJC, acting on petitions from the MBA and the Boston Bar Association, instructed the Board of Bar Examiners to draft rules raising the standards of both general and legal education, which were adopted on June 27, 1934.

Among the rules adopted was one that the Board of Bar Examiners first suggested in 1909: that every applicant have a high school education or its equivalent. Additional concerns about bar standards would arise in the 1930s and 1940s and led to additional requirements.


In 1919, before he was president, Nutter was appointed to the Judicature Commission by Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge to study and recommend legislative solutions for court problems such as unwieldy case loads. Also serving on the commission was another future MBA president, Addison L. Green (1921-22) and a former president, Henry N. Sheldon (1915-16).

With the backing of the MBA, the Massachusetts Judicial Council was formed in 1924 with the mission of the "continuous study of the organization, procedure and practice of the courts."

The creation of the council was credited as being the catalyst for similar councils across the country. The chairman of the National Conference of Judicial Councils in 1941 stated, "The judicial council movement has been aptly described as 'probably the most significant, if not the most important, development which has taken place in the judicial history of the United States during the last half century.'"

Centennial Timeline

The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression

1920: The 19th Amendment is ratified, giving women the right to vote.

1920: 1,171 women were enrolled in law schools nationwide. In Massachusetts, there were 4,897 licensed law professional; 47 of them women.

1920: There were 129 law schools in the nation; 27 exclusively for men.

1920: MBA helps launch the legal aid movement.

1921: As a result of the efforts by women's law associations and the MBA, a statute allowing women to stand for election or appointment to all state and county offices is passed.

1921: MBA discontinues free annual dinners, using the funds to advance the bar's professional work.

1922: At the annual meeting, the Sub-Committee on Co-Operation of Bar Associations is appointed to study the feasibility of federated activities "under the aegis of this association." The following year, the committee recommends against adopting a federated representative system, but the debate continues for much of the decade.

1923: The association defines its field of primary focus and begins its decades-long mission to participate in activities relating to the intricacies of the administration of justice.

1924: The Massachusetts Judicial Council is created by statute and charged with "the continuous study of the organization, procedure and practice of the courts."

1927: Reginald Heber Smith successfully lobbies for the MBA to appoint a legal aid committee, addressing the bar's duty to the law as a profession, not a business.

1928: MBA President George R. Nutter suggests holding semi-annual meetings as a means to promote more active participation.

1929: MBA disbars former Attorney General Arthur K. Reading, following his resignation from the post and a vote of impeachment from the House of Representatives.

1929: MBA passes bylaw changing presidential terms from one year to three.

1929: The stock market crashes, and with it, the nation.

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 and Bill Archambeault.

  • The MBA worked from its beginning to establish requirements key to ensuring an educated, skilled bar. "Not even a high school education was required of applicants for admission in 1909: unsupervised, haphazard studying sufficed." Applicants to the Board of Bar Examiners "merely had to be American citizens, twenty-one years of age, and able to pass the bar examination."
  • The Massachusetts Bar Association did not allow barriers against blacks, foreigners or first-generation Americans. Butler R. Wilson, who, along with compatriot William H. Lewis, challenged American Bar Association race requirements, was an MBA member from the beginning.
  • At its inception, the MBA decided only to issue recommendations on legal issues. Moved by court decisions that constitutionally disallowed compassionate efforts, however, members realized the organization could do more public good by supporting humanitarian causes, such as child labor reform.
  • The MBA has continually initiated legislation leading to improvements in the administration of justice. In 1913, the association lobbied to make the SJC an appellate court instead of a jury court and convinced the commonwealth to give the SJC a permanent seat in Boston, rather than rotating positions as a circuit court.