Lawyers come in all shapes and sizes, but of the many great lawyers, there are a handful of bests that stand out in a league of their own. The history of lawyers in America goes as far back as the history of the country itself. With such an extensive list to choose from, you might be wondering, who are the best lawyers in American history? Identifying those who stand above the rest can be tricky, but luckily for you, we’ve done the leg work, so you don’t have to.
Of the most influential lawyers in American history, there are five that stand out. Five of the best lawyers in American history are Abraham Lincoln, Mary Jo White, Johnnie Cochran, Joe Jamail, and Thurgood Marshall. Although this is a topic that will indeed be debated for centuries to come, there is no denying the impact these lawyers had on the country’s history and the legal system as we know it today.
While many factors determine what makes the best lawyer, it is essential to remember that this list is subjective. There are countless great lawyers in American history, far too many to name; this is just a collective list of five that we found to be the best. Understanding that, let’s take a look at the list.
It is not uncommon to hear the nickname for former president Abraham Lincoln, Honest Abe. But not many know that this nickname originated during his time working cases in the Illinois Supreme Court. Appearing in front of the court an astonishing 175 times, Abraham Lincoln served as a sole counsel in 51 one of those cases. 32 out of 51 of his sole counsel cases were judged in his favor, showcasing his skills as a lawyer.
Abraham Lincoln went on to be the 16th president of the United States, ultimately abolishing slavery and preserving the Union. Still, his mark in the courtroom before his presidency was something not to be overshadowed.
In one of his most famous cases, Abraham Lincon was the defense attorney representing William Duff Armstrong, who was being tried for murder. Abraham Lincoln actually took on the case pro bono, as a favor to a good friend. Through the use of undeniable exhibits and numerous prodigious witnesses, Abraham Lincoln was able to win the case and set the innocent William Duff Armstrong free.
Most notably, Abraham Lincoln was known for bringing an Old Farmer’s Almanac to the courtroom to prove that due to the moon’s position on the night of the murder, the claimed witness would not have been able to see the occurrence as claimed. While this may seem silly, this completely destroyed the testimony of one of the key witnesses.
Abraham Lincoln brought a witness who admitted the alleged murder weapon belonged to him. He also brought in a doctor who clearly distinguished the injury could not have been caused as claimed. Through this careful selection of witnesses, Abraham Lincoln was able to win the case in favor of William Duff Armstrong.
Mary Jo White
Known for being fearless and relentless, Mary Jo White ranks as one of the best lawyers in American history for many reasons. She was even recognized in 2014 by Forbes, making the top 100 most powerful women in the world.
In addition to her long list of professionally achieved accolades, Mary Jo White also made American history by being the first female to serve as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. While in this position, she tried multiple high-profile cases, including John Gotti, infamous mobster boss of the Gambino crime family. She was also responsible for the prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing terrorists.
Often overshadowed by those mentioned above, but not to go unnoticed, Mary Jo White was also responsible for pursuing legal action against Wall Street’s white-collar crimes. As a result of her dedication to the cause, Mary Jo White instated a $340 million fine for illegally covering up over $1 billion in trade loss against Daiwa Bank (Japan).
Another remarkable feat for Mary Jo White came from being Senate-confirmed and sworn into office in 2013 as the 31st Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under President Barack Obama.
Made so widely publicized that nearly every household in America is familiar with it, the O.J. Simpson trial was one for the ages. Johnnie Cochran was the lead criminal defense lawyer responsible for a team of well-known attorneys defending O.J. Simpson against charges claiming that he murdered his wife. Ultimately, Johnnie Cochrane and his team would present a case that led to O.J. Simpson’s acquittal.
Johnie Cochran represented many other big names out of Los Angeles, including Sean Combs, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Stanley Tookie Williams, and Snoop Dogg.
Not only known for his incredible presence in the courtroom as a skilled lawyer, but he was also known as a prominent figure in the advocacy for victims of police brutality.
Without a doubt, the most affluent lawyer on our list thanks to his career is Joe Jamail, also known as the “King of Torts.” With sometimes debatably appropriate conduct, Joe Jamail’s character in the courtroom showed as a person who exudes passion, aggression, and even abrasion at times.
One of the most well-known cases of Joe Jamail’s career took place in 1985 when he represented Pennzoil against Texaco. Joe Jamail won the case and was ultimately made famous for collecting a $335 million contingency fee.
Joe Jamail was known to give meaningful advice to individuals interested in pursuing a career in the legal system:
- Have authenticity; people can sense a phony
- Present exacting language, the jury will remember during deliberation
- Trust your judgment; even clients can be wrong at times
- Don’t be arrogant; pretend like you are facing the strongest opponents every time
As a lawyer, Joe Jamail was known for taking on big names and big numbers throughout his career. Other cases he took on included General Motors and Honda. While not only maintaining his status in the courtroom, Joe Jamail also played a significant role in the community as a philanthropist. Of his fortune, Joe Jamail was generous in his donations to universities and other schools.
Being the first African American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall was an extremely successful attorney during his time in his private practice.
Undoubtedly his most famous case, Thurgood Marshall, is known in American history as a pivotal component to abolishing legal segregation in his judgment during the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. Through this case, it became clear to the nation the role that Thurgood Marshall would play in his advocacy for change.
Amongst his many incredible feats during his time as a lawyer, some of the most predominant are:
- Presented the most cases in history to the United States Supreme Court
- Won 29 of his 32 cases presented to the United States Supreme Court
- Ruling in Murray v. Pearson led to the elimination of segregation in Maryland
- Chief legal counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
- First African American to be named United States Solicitor General under President Lyndon B. Johnson
- Won 14 of his 19 cases on behalf of the United States Government while serving as United States Solicitor General
- Nominated to the United States Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit by President John F. Kennedy
With a track record as decorated as Thurgood Marshall, it is no surprise that he makes the list of the top lawyers in American history. Without many of the rulings he was in charge of, American’s would be writing our history in a completely different way. Thurgood Marshall is an inspiration to all, whether or not you come from a legal background.
Conclusion – Who are the Best Lawyers in American History?
A lawyer’s job is not an easy task, and not one that is envied by many for that reason. However, lawyers can leave a mark on history, unlike many others. Anyone in the legal profession takes an oath to uphold, protect, and preserve the United States of America’s Constitution. How they do, that is unique to their personalities in the courtroom.
While it is easy to consider the best a subjective determination, discovering who are the best lawyers in American history can be deduced down to five: Abraham Lincoln, Mary Jo White, Johnnie Cochran, Joe Jamail, and Thurgood Marshall. All five of these lawyers have left an unforgettable mark on the legal system and American history as we know it today. Because of individuals like these, we uphold and abolish laws when no longer relevant to our society.
So whether you’re practicing law currently, studying to become a lawyer, or just having a general interest, we hope this has helped lead you in the right direction.
- One Legal
- Cal Regs
- Wikipedia – Mary Jo White
- Wikipedia – Johnnie Cochran
- Wikipedia – Joe Jamail
- Columbus State Library
Emily is a professionally trained freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics but specializes in business, law and hospitality content. With over a decade of professional writing experience in the hospitality industry, Emily comes from a strong background in the field backed with a BS from the world-renowned William F. Harrah College of Hospitality at UNLV. When she is not spending her time freelance writing, Emily enjoys growing her social media skills and spending time with her rescue puppy. Find out more about Emily’s extensive background or reach out directly at www.linkedin.com/in/Emily-Kho.