The Wisconsin Bar was organized on Jan. 9, 1878, as a voluntary association. After reorganization in 1947, the Wisconsin Bar opened its first full-time staffed office on Dec. 1, 1948, and services to members increased markedly. In June 1956 the Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered the Bar integrated, with membership a condition for the practice of law in Wisconsin. Membership and services immediately zoomed, with 6,700 lawyers enrolled by 1967.
In February 1988 a federal district court decision ruled unconstitutional the Wisconsin Supreme Court's requirement that all lawyers join the State Bar as a condition of practicing law in this state. Following that decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended the mandatory membership rule. The district court ruling has been overturned, and it is permissible for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to require Wisconsin lawyers to join the State Bar of Wisconsin as a condition of practicing law in Wisconsin. On March 10, 1992, following a public hearing on the State Bar Board of Governors' petition to reinstate the integrated bar, the supreme court ordered the mandatory membership requirement reinstated, effective July 1, 1992. Nearly 87 percent of the lawyers in Wisconsin chose to become voluntary members of the State Bar.
The American Bar Association has long considered the State Bar of Wisconsin to be one of the most innovative, productive and service-oriented bars in the country. This distinction has been attributed to the strong volunteerism Wisconsin lawyers exercise in their work with committees, sections and divisions.