Nutter leads the fight for higher bar
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
Nutter suggested that the state should place "disciplinary
measures in the hands of officials appointed by the Supreme
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
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
The Roaring Twenties and the Great
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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