Lawyers often get a bad rap for a variety of reasons and the public generally views them as amoral but necessary nuisances. And while some lawyers very easily fit this description (see Devil’s Advocate: History’s Most Controversial Lawyers), it would be a grave mistake to lump all attorney’s into this unfortunate stereotype. After all, a court of law was amongst the first societal innovations to accompany the rise of civilization, and in the same way that there are two sides to every story – there are two lawyers in every trial.
So in an effort to pay tribute to some our great unsung courtroom cowboys, we’ve listed the greatest lawyers in history.
Though Abraham Lincoln is most known for his battle to end slavery as the 16th President of the United States, many are unaware of his earlier career battling in the court of law.
Born in Kentucky to a family of uneducated farmers, Lincoln left his humble upbringings to travel to New Salem, Illinois where he worked a variety of odd jobs all while teaching himself the inner-workings of law. When he was finally granted the right to practice as an attorney, he got to work immediately and quickly became one of Illinois’ most formidable lawyers. During his tenure as a lawyer, he tackled any kind of case imaginable- including trials for medical malpractice, corporate misconduct, murder, slander, fraud and many more.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how Lincoln’s 20+ year long career as an attorney helped shape him into the masterful politician he would later become by sharpening his debate skills and keeping him in touch with the issues that matter to the public. And considering the fact that he went on to become one of the nation’s greatest Presidents should stand as evidence that being a lawyer doesn’t necessarily make you a lowlife- it just predisposes you to being a lowlife, which makes it all the more impressive that Lincoln turned out so cool.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
The fact that this guy is credited for having liberated India from tyranny, influenced a sweeping world-wide trend towards civil rights and became the de facto spiritual leader for a generation might make it surprising to know that he was also a gifted attorney. But such was the man, the myth, the legend of Gandhi.
Gandhi’s career as a lawyer began in London during the late 1800’s where he received his degree in law. He later moved to South Africa to pursue a career in law, but upon arrival he was faced with extreme racial prejudice against him and other Indians. After being beaten and discriminated against, he became involved in civil rights cases defending other Indian immigrants. A crucial moment in his life as a lawyer came after he refused to remove his turban during a court trial – an event that inspired his move towards activism and non-violent civil protest.
After being imprisoned in South Africa for his activism, Gandhi returned to India where he led the fight against the tyrannical British Empire, eventually resulting in India’s independence.
Though Gandhi’s career in law was ultimately overshadowed by his spiritual and political guidance, his history as a lawyer is still enough for him to qualify for this list – as if he needed another excuse to go down in history.
Even more than Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, the rise of the civil rights movement and eradication of discriminatory laws against African-Americans can be attributed to the work of Thurgood Marshall. Whereas Martin Luther King and others led the battles in the streets, Thurgood Marshall led the battles in the court and has easily become one of America’s most historic lawyers.
After receiving his law degree from Howard University in 1933, Marshall set up a practice in Baltimore where he began taking on major civil rights cases and quickly became one of the country’s most prominent lawyers, winning his first Supreme Court case at the age of 32.
His most famous case came in 1954 with the now historic Brown v. Board of Education trial which overturned the infamous “separate but equal” laws that had been enforced since the abolition of slavery in the 1800’s.
In total, Marshall won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court and later went on to become the first African-American to serve as a Supreme Court Justice- a position he held for nearly 25 years. Ultimately, Thurgood Marshall’s successes in law represents one of the brightest times in the judicial system’s history and provided proof to the efficacy of the American court of law.
Alan Dershowitz is one of the most famous lawyers in the world and he has won numerous distinctions for his work in civil rights. Newsweek has called him “[one of] the most distinguished defenders of individual rights,” and Time describes him as being “a sort of judicial St Jude,” all of which combine to make him one of the greatest lawyers in history and the only attorney on this list still practicing.
Dershowitz graduated from Yale Law School first in his class in 1962 where he was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal. He then went on to join the faculty of Harvard Law where he became the youngest full professor of law in Harvard’s history at the age of 28.
During his time as an attorney, he practiced a great deal of criminal law and was involved in several of the country’s most high-profile court cases, including the trials of Patricia Hearst, Leona Helmsley, Mike Tyson and OJ Simpson. He has since become one of Israel’s most outspoken defenders and is a recipient of the William O Douglas First Amendment Award from the Anti-Defamation League for his work on civil rights.
Though Derschowitz has also been the source of much controversy, his battle for civil rights and his prodigal understanding of law will undoubtedly go down as his greatest legacy, which is why Alan Dershowitz tops off this list of history’s greatest lawyers.