A bar association is a professional body of lawyers. Some bar associations are responsible for the regulation of the legal profession in their jurisdiction; others are professional organizations dedicated to serving their members; in many cases, they are both.
In many Commonwealth jurisdictions, the "bar association" comprises lawyers who are qualified as barristers or advocates (collectively known as "the bar", or "members of the bar"), while the "law society" comprises solicitors. These bodies are sometimes mutually exclusive. In other jurisdictions, the "bar" may refer to the entire community of persons engaged in the practice of law.
In the United States, admission to the bar is permission granted by a particular court system to a lawyer to practice law in that system. This is to be distinguished from membership in a bar association. In the United States, some states require bar association membership for all attorneys, while others do not.
Although bar associations historically existed as unincorporated voluntary associations, nearly all bar associations have since been organized (or reorganized) as corporations. Furthermore, membership in some of them (see the next section below) is no longer voluntary, which is why some of them have omitted the word "association" and merely call themselves the "state bar" to indicate that they are the incorporated body that constitutes the entire admitted legal profession of a state.
Some states require membership in the state's bar association to practice law there. Such an organization is called a mandatory, integrated, or unified bar. They exist at present in a slight majority of U.S. states, including Alabama (Alabama State Bar), Alaska, Arizona (State Bar of Arizona), California (State Bar of California), Florida (The Florida Bar), Georgia (State Bar of Georgia), Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan (State Bar of Michigan), Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon (Oregon State Bar), Rhode Island (Rhode Island Bar Association), South Carolina (South Carolina Bar), South Dakota, Texas (State Bar of Texas), Utah, Virginia (Virginia State Bar), Washington (Washington State Bar Association), West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands also have unified bars.
In some states, like Wisconsin, the mandatory membership requirement is implemented through an order of the state supreme court, which can be revoked or canceled at any time at the court's discretion. In others, like Oregon, the state legislature passed a law and created a government agency. California went farther than any other state and wrote the State Bar of California into its constitution.
The first state to have an integrated bar association was North Dakota in 1921.
A voluntary bar association is a private organization of lawyers. Each chooses its own purposes (e.g. social, educational, and lobbying functions), but does not regulate the practice of law or admit lawyers to practice.
There is a statewide voluntary bar association in every state that has no mandatory or integrated bar association. There are also many voluntary bar associations organized by city, county, or other community. Such associations are often focused on common professional interests (such as bankruptcy lawyers or in-house counsel) or common ethnic interests (such as gender, race, religion, or national heritage), such as the Hispanic National Bar Association. The American Bar Association is the voluntary bar association with the largest membership. Such associations often advocate for law reform and provide information in bar journals, pro bono services or a lawyer referral service to the general public.
There is no mandatory federal bar association. The Federal Bar Association is a private, voluntary group.
There are also a number of subject-specific private associations, which are not officially denominated as bar associations but which serve similar functions in terms of providing their members with useful publications, networking opportunities, and continuing legal education. The largest association of defense counsel is the Defense Research Institute (the "Voice of the Defense Bar"), while the largest association of plaintiffs' counsel is the American Association for Justice (formerly Association of Trial Lawyers of America). The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is an association of progressive attorneys and legal workers founded as the first national lawyer's association with membership open to all races and religions.
Judges may or may not be members of the bar. Etymologically, they sit "on the bench", and the cases which come before them are "at bar" or "at bench". Many states in the United States require that some or all judges be members of the bar; typically these limit or completely prohibit the judges from practicing law while serving as a judge.
The U.S. Constitution contains no requirement that Federal judges or Supreme Court justices be members of the bar. However, there are no modern instances of the President nominating or the Congress approving any candidate who is not a member of any bar. There are various professional associations of judges, such as the American Judges Association, that perform some of the educational and other service functions of bar associations.
In Canada, one is called to the bar after undertaking a post law school training in a provincial law society program, and undergoing an apprenticeship or taking articles. Legal communities are called provincial law societies, except for Nova Scotia, where it is called the "Nova Scotia Barristers' Society", and Quebec, where it is called the Barreau du Quebec.
In India under the legal framework set established under the Advocates Act, 1961, a law graduate is required to be enrolled with the Bar Council of India. The process of enrollment is delegated by the Bar Council of India to the state Bar Councils wherein almost each state has a Bar Council of its own. Once enrolled with a State Bar Council, the law graduate is recognized as an Advocate and thereupon is entitled to appear and practice before any court in India. There is no formal requirement for further membership of any Bar Association. However Advocates do become members of various local or national bar associations for reasons of recognition and facilities which these associations offer. Besides the Bar Council of India, other known Bar Associations in India are "All India Bar Association" and "Supreme Court Bar Association". Each State and local court generally also has a Bar Association of its own, like the "Delhi High Court Bar Association" "Bombay High Court Bar Association" etc.
In Pakistan, a person becomes a member of the bar after fulfilling certain requirements. They must have a valid law degree from a recognized university, must offer certain undertakings, and pay the Bar Association fees. If a person does not hold an LL.M Degree they must first complete six months pupillage with a practising Advocate, whom they must assist on at least ten cases during a six-month pupillage period.
The use of the term bar to mean "the whole body of lawyers, the legal profession" comes ultimately from English custom. In the early 16th century, a railing divided the hall in the Inns of Court, with students occupying the body of the hall and readers or benchers on the other side. Students who officially became lawyers crossed the symbolic physical barrier and were "admitted to the bar". Later, this was popularly assumed to mean the wooden railing marking off the area around the judge's seat in a courtroom, where prisoners stood for arraignment and where a barrister stood to plead. In modern courtrooms, a railing may still be in place to enclose the space which is occupied by legal counsel as well as the criminal defendants and civil litigants who have business pending before the court.