The AALS was formed in 1900 to elevate the standards of legal education in an era when it was still possible to become a lawyer through apprenticeship or self-study as Abraham Lincoln did. The 32 charter members were exemplars of the academic model for studying the law. Affiliated with leading public and private universities, they already enrolled half the nation’s law students. The AALS membership roster grew apace with the country’s population and the need for more lawyers to represent citizens, businesses, government and the public interest. The Association was nearly 100 schools strong by 1940 and by its centennial represented more than 160. The growth continues to this day, with the newest member, University of California, Irvine School of Law, admitted in January 2016. The 178 AALS schools enroll and graduate most of the nation’s lawyers.

The first president of AALS was James Bradley Thayer, a constitutional law scholar and professor at Harvard Law School. 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 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, dean of the University of Miami School of Law and an author of the Uniform Commercial Code, in 1974 became the first woman president, followed in 1986 by Susan Westerberg Prager, then dean of UCLA School of Law and later Executive Director of the Association. Twelve of the past 30 presidents have been women, including Emma Coleman Jordan (1992), professor at Georgetown Law, who was also the first African-American president. Rennard Strickland, a legal historian of Osage and Cherokee heritage and later dean of the University of Oregon Law School, served as president in 1994, the first Native American to hold the post. He was followed two years later by Wallace D. Loh, now president of the University of Maryland, College Park, and former dean of the University of Washington Law School, the first Asian-American president. Five  Hispanic-Americans have held the post including Daniel B. Rodriguez, former dean of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, and Leo P. Martinez of the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

The Association incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization in 1971. A 10-member Executive Committee leads the Association. It is comprised of 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 members 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 and hired its first Executive Director to serve as chief executive officer. The Executive Director oversees a small staff that supports the various meetings and other services of the Association and interacts with the volunteer-driven committees and sections that remain the heart of the organization. An Associate Director works with the staff for a defined term to manage projects and to assist the Association’s committees.

For many decades, the AALS convened its Annual Meeting in Chicago during the week before New Year’s. The Annual Meeting grew to become the largest gathering in the world of law professors. Since the 1970s, it has taken place in early January in various major cities. The meeting was once a primary focus for faculty job interviews and offers, but in 1974 the Association launched a separate faculty recruitment conference that is held in the fall semester. That arrangement has helped law schools consider a wider, more diverse pool of applicants for teaching law, while at the same time allowing the Annual Meeting to concentrate on professional development, scholarship and teaching.

The AALS offered its first professional development program, a clinic focused on pedagogical techniques for teaching law, in 1969. Today it holds a range of opportunities for professional development each year, including the Annual Meeting, a Clinical Conference, and a Workshop for New Law Teachers.

Most of the Association’s budget is derived from dues paid by member schools on an enrollment-based scale. It also receives income from meeting fees, the professional development programs, publications, and services, as well as gifts and grants.

The AALS belongs to or is affiliated with other national and international higher education organizations, including the American Council on Education, American Council of Learned Societies, Consortium of Social Science Associations, National Humanities Alliance, and the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. The Association also participates regularly in projects with the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the Law School Admission Council, the National Association for Law Placement, the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the Conference of Chief Justices, and the Law School Survey of Student Engagement.