By Edwin David Robertson, Fordham University Press and NYCLA, 416 pages, $34.95, non-members, $24.95, members

What is a bar association? It is, in essence, a group of lawyers who come together for professional and social reasons. Under a bar association’s auspices, lawyers form committees and meet and talk about their cases and trends in the law; they attend functions and listen to law-related lectures; they file lawsuits or amicus briefs in the public interest; they issue reports to improve the law and how it is practiced.

Bar associations do more, of course – like providing library facilities and CLE courses, promoting camaraderie and networking, encouraging pro bono work, and resolving disputes with clients. But their core function is to supply an organized means for the legal community to perform necessary (and personally rewarding) activities.

Of all the New York-area bar associations, however, only one was born with inclusive membership ideals, rare at the time, that still make it special, attractive and even glorious, a bright and shining beacon for the legal profession. It is not the biggest or the oldest bar association in the New York area. But it has a genesis that is as reassuring as it is in the finest tradition of American law. That group is the New York County Lawyers’ Association, and the first hundred years of its story is the subject of a new book, “Brethren and Sisters of the Bar,” by Edwin David Robertson.

Although not a professional author, Robertson brings to his task relevant experience and excellent writing skills. He himself is a recent former president of NYCLA, has been a practicing lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft for almost 40 years, and is an amateur historian. This background gives Robertson a useful perspective from which to write a history of an institution of which he is so obviously fond. His work product is well organized, clear and nicely written and, perhaps more importantly, is an exciting, illuminating and fascinating account of a bar association that has always been ahead of its time.

The story starts in 1908, in an era when, sad to say, discrimination reigned in the legal profession. At that benighted time, other New York-area bar associations, unbelievable as it seems, did not allow African-Americans, women or many Jews to join. The “unique feature” of NYCLA at its founding in 1908 was, as former NYCLA president Klaus Eppler explains in his foreword, “that it was open to all members of the bar practicing in New York County.” Religion, race and gender did not matter. If you were a Manhattan lawyer (and admitted to the bar), that was enough, you could join NYCLA, and NYCLA was the only bar association that admitted members on such a non-discriminatory basis. This open membership policy, according to Eppler, “has been both a source of strength to the organization, as well as a reason that so many of us have joined and remain as loyal members.”

That inclusive aspect of NYCLA’s beginnings is reason by itself to greatly admire the organization. No matter how many times it is told, no matter how many years go by, the story of NYCLA’s open admission policy continues to inspire and encourage. Now, of course, open membership is a feature in all bar associations, but it wasn’t in 1908. It took courage and commitment to fundamental American ideals of equality to buck existing mores and allow every lawyer to be eligible for membership. Thurgood Marshall, hero of the civil rights movement, said NYCLA’s library facilities were essential to him as a lawyer and that NYCLA “was the only place that welcomed me.”

We are not surprised to learn from Robertson’s first chapter (entitled “A Bar Association for all New York”) that another still-familiar factor was behind NYCLA’s birth: judicial nominations. Then, as now, bar associations played a role in selecting and evaluating judges. When 20 judgeships became available in late 1907, that opportunity also spurred the founders of NYCLA to create a bar association “to take some steps toward helping the political parties” to select the proper judicial candidates. As we know from a recent New York case that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, our judicial selection process remains controversial.

Interesting as Robertson’s stories about NYCLA are, far more interesting is his description of what has happened since. The book delves into the history of an organization in the forefront of many legal initiatives and controversies.

As early as 1914, NYCLA considered a resolution to set up a “legal aid society for indigents accused of crime.” World War I saw the creation of a “Military Committee” to focus on legal issues raised by the war. (Some of us wish NYCLA would have a new Military Justice Committee today.) Over the years, NYCLA has spearheaded campaigns to improve courthouse facilities, to repeal prohibition, to cope with the Depression, to find legal solution to corporate abuse, to bring women and minorities into the profession, to raise the ethics of the bar, and has continuously pressed for better legal representation for the poor.

In 2000, NYCLA sued the city and the state, complaining that maximum fees paid to assigned indigent counsel in criminal cases in state court were unconstitutional because they “were so low that the system failed to attract enough lawyers to provide competent representation for the indigent accused.” Three years later, NYCLA won, and the Legislature amended the law. It was one of the legal profession’s finest hours.

The cast of characters in NYCLA’s fabled history includes many luminaries of the New York bar, eminent judges as well as famous lawyers from large Wall Street firms as well as solo practitioners. We read about the likes of Joseph Choate, Benjamin Cardozo, Charles Evans Hughes, Lloyd Paul Stryker, Samuel Seabury, William Nelson Cromwell, Joseph Proskauer, Caroline Simon, Boris Kostelanetz, Edith Spivack and Ken Bialkin, and what they did as NYCLA leaders. We find out how NYCLA’s landmark building on Vesey Street came into being and why its main auditorium is named after Andrew Hamilton, the lawyer who successfully represented New York printer Peter Zenger in 1735 against charges of seditious libel.

With a historian’s eye for the telling anecdote, Robertson gives a nuanced and prodigiously researched account in readable, accessible prose of one of our great local bar associations. His copious footnotes are chock full of absolutely fascinating tidbits. And so Robertson is able to evoke, with great narrative verve and a gratifying richness of detail, the entire first century of the ongoing career of NYCLA. “Clearly a proverbial labor of love, Brethren and Sisters of the Bar” is a handsome volume that in many ways tells our story as New York lawyers, shows what bar associations are really all about, and explains by example why we join them.

Daniel J. Kornstein is a partner with Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard.