The Washington Bar Association was formed in January 1888, during the final year of the Washington Territory. In those days, all lawyers who had cases set for argument before the Washington Supreme Court were required to be present at the beginning of the Court term in January. Sometimes lawyers were required to wait for days or weeks for their cases to be called on the calendar. In this setting, a group of lawyers met in the Supreme Court chambers in Olympia and decided to form the Washington Bar Association. The name was changed to the Washington State Bar Association in 1890.
Alfred J. Schweppe, WSBA's first executive secretary
The association originally consisted of 35 lawyers, and membership cost $5 per year. At that time, it was a purely voluntary organization and did not include all lawyers admitted to practice.
By 1930, as more lawyers were admitted to practice, it was proposed that the association have a more formal structure. In 1933, the Legislature enacted the State Bar Act (RCW 2.48), establishing the Washington State Bar Association as an agency of the state. It made membership mandatory for those licensed to practice law in Washington. Seattle lawyer Alfred J. Schweppe, a former dean of the University of Washington School of Law who was instrumental in drafting the State Bar Act, served as the WSBA’s first executive secretary.
The Washington State Bar Association is part of the judicial branch, exercising a governmental function authorized by the Washington Supreme Court to license the state’s nearly 40,000 legal professionals, including lawyers, limited practice officers, and limited license legal technicians. The Bar both regulates legal professionals under the authority of the Court and serves its members as a professional association — all without public funding. As a regulatory agency, the WSBA administers the bar admission process, including the bar exam; maintains record-keeping and licensing; and administers the lawyer discipline system. As a professional association, the Bar provides continuing legal education in addition to numerous other educational and member-service activities.
The Washington Supreme Court has adopted General Rule (GR) 12.1, which sets out the general purposes of the WSBA and specifies its authorized activities. The General Rule is incorporated into Article I of the WSBA Bylaws. The internal affairs of the WSBA, including its membership, governance, and operations, are established by the Bylaws.
The WSBA is a mandatory bar (sometimes referred to as an “integrated” or “unified” bar), meaning that legal professionals licensed to practice in Washington are required to be members and pay an annual license fee. Admissions, regulation, and disciplinary functions are combined with professional association functions into one organization.
The Board of Governors directs the Bar. Board members, or governors, are chosen through a combination of election by members and appointment by the board. The WSBA president, elected by the Board of Governors, serves as the spokesperson for the Bar along with the executive director.
The Board of Governors selects the executive director, who runs the daily operations of the organization and manages a staff of approximately 145 Bar employees. The Bar's staff carry out the WSBA’s regulatory and disciplinary functions and provide support to various volunteers groups that work on Bar matters.