Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Join
Member Directory
Sign In
Sign In securely
Legal News
Master Calendar
Share |

ISBA History
The Iowa State Bar Association is a vibrant, progressive organization that provides Iowa attorneys with the benefits of professional association with their colleagues. Its benefits include continuing legal education, practice aids, interaction with the judiciary and legislature, participation in reform of the law, and news regarding developments impacting the profession.

The ISBA includes lawyers young and old, newly licensed as well as retired, residents and nonresidents (including military), active and inactive, lawyers in practice, and those working for business, government, and in other lines of work. In all, the Association includes approximately 8,000 lawyers and judges in Iowa’s 99 counties and beyond.

The Iowa State Bar Association also can lay legitimate claim to being the oldest voluntary state bar association in the United States, having been formed initially in 1874, four years before even the American Bar Association. In that year, Iowa had been a state for 28 years and boasted a population of 1.5 million, which made it tenth among the 37 states. In his book, History of American Law, Lawrence M. Friedman, History of American Law 648 (2d ed., New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1985). Lawrence M. Friedman observes:

For most of the 19th century, no organization even pretended to speak for the bar as a whole, or any substantial part, or to govern the conduct of lawyers. Lawyers formed associations, mainly social, from time to time; but there was no general bar group until the last third of the century.

Noting the Association of the Bar of the City of New York was formed in 1870, the author confirms Iowa’s formation of its state bar association four years later made it the first state in the nation to do so.

Similarly, in To Go Free: A Treasury of Iowa’s Legal Heritage, Acton, Richard Lord & Patricia Nassif Acton, To Go Free: A Treasury of Iowa’s Legal Heritage 147 (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1995). authors Richard, Lord Acton and Patricia Nassif Acton recount how Iowa lawyers met at the Polk County courthouse to organize The Iowa State Bar Association in May, 1874. The Actons state, "The Iowa Association is believed to be the first such organization in the country to maintain its existence for a lengthy duration.” Except for a hiatus in its meetings between 1881 and 1895 (while cities such as Philadelphia and New Orleans formed their own bar associations and states such as Mississippi and Massachusetts formed bar associations lasting only a few years) The Iowa State Bar Association has continued its existence for over 135 years.

State bar associations throughout the country fall into two categories: unified and voluntary. In a unified bar, a lawyer is automatically a member of the bar association upon receiving a law license, and in some states the bar association is actually operated by or as an arm of the state supreme court. In contrast, there are 16 state bar associations where membership is optional and voluntary. Iowa is one of those and proud to have one of the highest membership rates (close to 90%) of any voluntary bar association in the country. Fifty-four percent live and work in Iowa’s largest cities, with the remainder spread throughout the state’s small towns and rural communities. Seven percent of the members are solo practitioners, 44% practice in firms of two to five members, 21% in firms with six to ten members, and 28% in firms with over 10 members.

There are probably many reasons why The Iowa State Bar Association has such a high membership percentage, but here are just a few. First and foremost, Iowa lawyers are committed to justice and dedicated to their profession. Second, the ISBA provides many valuable services to its members. Third, its involvement with and handling of contemporary issues earns it respect from its members, the judiciary and legislature, and the public. The ISBA has historically been at the forefront of significant changes in Iowa law, many of which have little to do with lawyers but are in the best interests of all Iowans. It has served as the voice of Iowa lawyers, not only on behalf of the profession but also on behalf of the legal rights of all Iowans.

The ISBA’s offices are in Des Moines, at the foot of the Iowa Capitol. The Association’s business is conducted through an Executive Director and staff of fourteen employees operating with an annual budget of $2.6 million. It is funded through members’ dues, which are among the lowest in the nation, and through other revenue sources such as receipts from the sales of forms and practice manuals and the many continuing legal education seminars it conducts.

The Association is governed by a 43-member Board of Governors elected from each of the state’s fourteen judicial election districts. The Association’s officers (President, President-Elect, and Vice-President) are elected by the membership after being nominated by the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors also elects two representatives to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, that association’s policy-making body.

ISBA members belong to 22 substantive law sections and 36 committees. Substantive law sections include Litigation, Real Estate, Probate & Trust, Family & Juvenile, Criminal, Labor & Employment, Agricultural, Commercial & Bankruptcy, Taxation, General Practice, Alternative Dispute Resolution, and e-Commerce. ISBA committees include Professionalism, Specialization, Technology, Legal Forms, Jury Instructions, Appellate Practice, and Federal Practice. The ISBA also has a Young Lawyers Division, which has its own set of officers, conducts its own programs and events, and is open to any ISBA member who is under the age of 35 or who has been in practice less than 10 years. Members in the Young Lawyers Division comprise 23% of the total Association membership.

ISBA members also operate a Political Action Committee, called LawPac, which disburses lawyers’ contributions totaling approximately $60,000 each year to legislative candidates. The ISBA also sponsors a free-standing Lawyers Helping Lawyers organization that helps lawyers who suffer from depression or alcohol and drug problems. The Association’s projects and activities also are supported financially by the Iowa State Bar Foundation, a charitable organization with over $1 million in assets.

The ISBA hosts a dynamic web site at which provides valuable information to the bar and public alike, including legal resources, news of current developments, and valuable links to judicial and other legal websites. The Association also publishes IOWADOCS software forms, the preeminent legal forms used in Iowa for deeds, purchase agreements, probate forms, and myriad other uses. An Association-sponsored electronic research arrangement likewise offers a great value to Iowa practitioners. ISBA also provides to the public numerous pamphlets and other publications with such diverse titles as: Do You Need A Will?, How to be a Good Witness!, How To Use Small Claims Court, Jury Handbook, Executor’s Handbook, Consumer Guide to Iowa Law, Sound Steps in Purchasing a Home, and The Rights of Young People.

The Association enjoys an excellent relationship with Iowa’s judiciary and the state’s two law schools. ISBA officers confer frequently with Iowa judges, including the Chief Justice, on matters affecting lawyers and the courts. The Association works with the deans and faculty of the law schools to involve faculty members in the Association’s work, such as revising state statutes, to assist in insuring the law schools’ curricula are well-designed to provide students the necessary background to practice law in Iowa, and to aid the transition from law student to practicing lawyer.

Here are a few examples of the Association’s recent work and involvement for the benefit of the bar and the public:

Iowa Legislation
Each year the ISBA’s affirmative legislative program includes proposals for enactment by Iowa’s Legislature for the benefit of Iowa’s citizens. For example, after extensive study the Association has recommended adoption and/or amendment of the Probate Code, Trust Code, Commercial Code, and Business Corporation Act. It has also been active in studies and recommendations concerning community-based corrections programs for drug-addicted, non-violent criminal offenders; for improvements in laws governing electronic commerce; and in proposed legislation for the modernization of real estate records.

Center for Law and Civic Education
Through its Center for Law and Civic Education, the ISBA conducts statewide programs for the education of citizens, particularly students. Each year, for example, the Center conducts a Know Your Constitution essay competition and Mock Trial Tournament for high school students.

Iowa Find-A-Lawyer Service
ISBA operates a web-based Find-A-Lawyer service that members of the public can look up on the website for assistance in finding a lawyer. This service usually recommends lawyers in the users geographical area who are experienced in handling cases the user is involved in. The website address for the service is

Economic Surveys
Every five years the association surveys its members and collects economic data concerning the practice of law in Iowa, including hours worked, firm size, fields of practice, overhead expenses, and income. The data is then collated, published, and distributed to all members of the Association free of charge.

Rules Regulating Lawyer Advertising
A bar association task force on advertising worked for two years studying the rules governing lawyer advertising in Iowa, and developed a compromise solution designed to enable lawyers to more freely advise the public of the services they offer while at the same time protecting the public from lawyer ads based on emotional appeal, unverifiable claims, or self-laudatory statements. The recommendations of the task force were forwarded to the Iowa Supreme Court and formed the basis for the Court’s August 2001 notice regarding modifications of the advertising rules.

Multijurisdictional Practice
In 2000, the American Bar Association formed its Committee on Multijurisdictional Practice to examine the problems faced by lawyers representing a client across state jurisdictional lines, such as when an Iowa lawyer representing an Iowa franchisor travels to Nebraska to negotiate the terms of a contractual franchise with the resident lawyers of the prospective franchisees in that state. Shortly after the formation by the American Bar Association of its MJP committee in 2000, The Iowa State Bar Association formed its own committee on the subject to examine the issues on behalf of Iowa lawyers and monitor developments on the national level.

Ethics and UPL Enforcement
Prior to 1995, the Association policed the Bar for ethical rules violations and non-lawyers engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. In 1995, both of those functions were ceded to the Iowa Supreme Court, and today are performed by its Grievance Commission, Board of Professional Ethics and Conduct, and Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law.

The Iowa State Bar Association is proud of its history, its accomplishments, and its representation of Iowa lawyers. In the rapidly changing legal environment of the 21st Century, it will continue to strive to provide all of the benefits of association membership to Iowa lawyers, to remain relevant and responsive to their practice needs, and to promote improvements in the law and justice system for the benefit of all Iowans.

By Bruce Graves
ISBA Past President, 2001-2002
updated 6/1/2011

The Iowa State Bar Association • 625 East Court Avenue • Des Moines, IA 50309
Ph. (515) 243-3179 • Fax (515) 243-2511