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 become 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 became the charter members of AALS.  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 18 fee-paid law schools participating.

The founding of AALS took place at roughly 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 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.”

 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, 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.

From the beginning, an Executive Committee was the principal driver of AALS policy and decision-making. The President appointed a nominating committee, which nominated a new President, one other officer and three members for the Executive Committee.  Those nominated were voted on by the member schools attending the annual meeting.

That same governance structure has remained in place for 125 years, although the number of officers was increased to include first a president-elect and later, an immediate past president.  The non-officer members’ terms were gradually increased to three years, with two appointed each year. In 1963 the position of Executive Director was created. The Director is an ex officio member of the Executive Committee.

For its first 62 years, the Association relied entirely on the elected officers and other 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.  The House of Representatives was also established 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 in place of 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 characteristics 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. He had been barred from higher education in his home state of North Carolina because of his race, graduated cum laude from Ohio State University 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.

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 also the first woman on the faculty at Columbia Law School when she joined the Executive Committee of AALS in 1972. Many other firsts have followed including Leo Romero (University of New Mexico School of Law) the first Hispanic on the Executive Committee in 1981; Gerald Torres (The University of Texas School of Law), the first Hispanic President in 2004; Rennard Strickland (University of Oregon School of Law), 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 School of Law), the first Asian-American to serve on the Executive Committee in 1972, and as President of AALS in 1976.

The 1970s saw major growth in the number of clinical faculty at the nation’s law schools. Soon there was similar growth in the number of legal research and writing faculty. By 2000, Elliott Milstein (American University, Washington College of Law) was the first clinical faculty member elected President of AALS, and in 2020, Darby Dickerson (Southwestern Law School) became the first faculty member from the legal research and writing field to be elected President of AALS.

The second century of AALS also brought the first listing of core values in the Bylaws. Although the governance structure had not changed for more than 100 years, the values adopted in 2003 reflected a commitment to diversity that did not exist until the second half of the twentieth century:

The Association values and expects its member schools to value:

  1. A faculty composed primarily of full-time teachers/scholars who constitute a self-governing intellectual community engaged in the creation and dissemination of knowledge about law, legal processes and legal systems, and who are devoted to fostering justice and public service;
  2. Academic freedom;
  3. Diversity of viewpoints;
  4. Excellent scholarship;
  5. Excellent teaching;
  6. A rigorous academic program in the context of a dynamic curriculum that is both broad and deep;
  7. A diverse faculty who are hired, promoted, and retained based on meeting and supporting high standards of teaching and scholarship and in accordance with principles of non-discrimination;
  8. Competent and professional staff to support the mission of the law school;
  9. Selection of students based upon intellectual ability and personal potential for success in the study and practice of law, through a fair and nondiscriminatory process designed to produce a diverse student body and a broadly representative legal profession; and
  10. Honesty, integrity, and professionalism in dealing with students, faculty, staff, the public, and the Association. (Bylaw 6.1).