AALS was formed in 1900 to improve legal education in America.  Twenty-seven of the 35 schools that sent representatives to the founding meeting in Saratoga Springs, New York, agreed to became charter members. With the election of five more schools at the first Annual Meeting in 1901, 32 of the 108 law schools in the United States were members of AALS representing 52 percent of the nation’s law students. AALS membership grew apace with the country’s population and the need for more lawyers to represent its citizens, businesses, government, and the public interest. The Association was nearly 100 schools strong by 1940 and today has 176 member and 19 fee-paid schools participating.

The founding of AALS took place at the same time that being a full-time law professor first emerged as a career. The first AALS President was James Bradley Thayer, a constitutional law scholar and Professor at Harvard Law School, who explained the link in an address to the ABA in 1895:

“It is a simple truth that you cannot have thorough and first-rate training in law, any more than in physical sciences, unless you have a body of learned teachers, and you cannot have a learned faculty of law unless, like other faculties, they give their lives in their work. The main secret of teaching law, as of all teaching, is what Socrates declared to be the secret of eloquence, understanding your subject; and that requires . . . an enormous and absorbing amount of labor.”

In the years following James Thayer, many of the nation’s best-known faculty have served in AALS leadership. Harlan Fiske Stone, then Dean of Columbia Law School and a future Attorney General of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, served as president of AALS during World War I. Erwin Griswold, future Solicitor General of the United States and then Dean of Harvard Law School, held the post in 1958. Soia Mentschikoff, then Dean of the University of Miami School of Law and an author of the Uniform Commercial Code, became the first woman to serve as President in 1974.

A 10-member Executive Committee leads the Association. It includes the President, Immediate Past President and President-Elect, six other elected members and, ex officio, the Executive Director. For its first 62 years, the Association relied entirely on the elected officers and volunteer faculty to carry out its work, including arrangements for the Annual Meeting and publication of the AALS Directory of Law Teachers. In 1963 the Association established a national office in Washington, D.C. and hired Michael H. Cardozo as its first Executive Director. By the end of his term in 1972, AALS established Sections, which enabled faculty and staff for the first time to connect with their peers in different fields of law of their own choosing, and the House of Representatives to ensure member schools had a voice in the major affairs of the AALS. When Cardozo was appointed, little was said about his role. In 2008, however, in recognition of how governance in the Association had evolved, the House of Representatives made the Executive Director the Chief Executive Officer of the Association rather than the President who continues to preside over the Executive Committee and House of Representatives.

Diversity came slowly to AALS. In 1950, the membership resolved that the AALS should abolish “segregation or discrimination in legal education on racial grounds” and take appropriate enforcement action. In 1951, the membership adopted a resolution that embraced “equality of opportunity in legal education without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race or color.” There was no enforcement of the resolution until 1958 when the University of Richmond T.C. Williams School of Law was censured after it self-reported that it was denying students admission based on race.  In 1965, when the University of Richmond announced that it would no longer discriminate on the basis of race in student admissions, the censure was removed.

In subsequent years, equality of opportunity was extended to apply to faculty and staff as well as to students, and to cover more than race. Today, AALS requires all member schools “to provide equality of opportunity in legal education for all persons, including faculty and employees, . . . applicants for admission, enrolled students, and graduates, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender (including identity and expression), sexual orientation, age, or disability.” (AALS Bylaw Section 6-3)

In 1966, the first person of color was elected to the Executive Committee. Clarence Clyde Ferguson, Jr., who had been barred from higher education in his home state of Maryland because of his race, graduated cum laude from Ohio State in 1948 and Harvard Law School in 1951. He had served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1946 where he took part in the Normandy invasion. When elected to the Executive Committee, Ferguson was Dean of Howard Law School.

Ferguson was followed on the Executive Committee by two other Black faculty: Herbert O. Reid, Sr., in 1974, and Henry Ramsey, Jr., in 1977. Emma Coleman Jordan was elected to the Executive Committee in 1989 and in 1992 became the first Black President of AALS.

The first woman elected to the Executive Committee was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, later a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. She was a faculty member at Rutgers when she served in 1972. Many other firsts have followed including Leo Romero (New Mexico) the first Hispanic on the Executive Committee in 1981; Gerald Torres (Texas), the first Hispanic President in 2004; Rennard Strickland (Oregon), a legal historian of Osage and Cherokee heritage who served as the first Native American President in 1994; and Wallace D. Loh (University of Washington), the first Asian-American to serve on the Executive Committee in 1992, and as President of AALS in 1996.

AALS was accepted as a member of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1958. AALS offered its first specialized, professional development program, a clinic focused on pedagogical techniques for teaching law, in 1969. Today, AALS provides opportunities for professional development throughout the year, culminating in the Annual Meeting with up to four days of programs for law school deans, faculty and administrators. AALS programs and meetings provide teachers and scholars who have common interests with an opportunity to exchange new ideas about teaching and scholarship in their fields. The 106 Sections of the AALS also offer information and programs throughout the year.