18 Famous Lawyers in History that Changed the World

18 Famous Lawyers in History

Lawyers often have to work very hard to gain an esteemed and trustworthy image. One bad case can sink a lawyer’s career, but there are many famous lawyers in history that have accomplished a great deal to make it on the most famous lawyers in history list.

Lawyers who go down in history often had a time in their career where they defied the odds of laws during their time and made outstanding changes. Many lawyers went on to run for office, served on the Supreme Court, or used their knowledge to become an educator, while others continued their practice in law and fought in some of the most notable court cases in history.

Here is a list of 18 famous lawyers in history.

1. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

More notable for being the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln was also a lawyer. Lincoln became an authorized lawyer in 1836 when he took the bar examination in Illinois. Lincoln practiced law with John T. Stuart and the two owned a law firm “Stuart and Lincoln”. Their partnership came to an end after Stuart was elected as a U.S. Representative.

Lincoln continued running the law firm on his own until he partnered with Stephen Logan in 1841. Much of Lincoln’s law career with Logan concentrated on bankruptcies. After Logan partnered with his son, Lincoln began a partnership with William H. Herndon in 1844 and became a prominent railroad lawyer in Illinois. Less than two decades later, Abraham Lincoln ran against John C. Breckinridge in the 1860 U.S. presidential election and won.

During his presidency, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which freed slaves of the Confederate states. Lincoln was re-elected the following year, but was assassinated shortly after in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth while attending a show at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C.

2. Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall is one of the most famous lawyers in history and is known for his participation in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954. Marshall became interested in law at a young age after he was forced to read the U.S. Constitution for a punishment at school. His interest in law and desire to help make a change to the racial injustices that African Americans faced in the country fueled his aspirations.

Marshall first attended Lincoln University and went on to study law at Howard University. Thurgood Marshall participated in a number of famous cases.

  • Murray v. Maryland 
  • Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada
  • Sweatt v. Painter
  • McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education
  • Brown v. Board of Education

The Brown v. The Board of Education case was the most significant case of Marshall’s career as it deemed segregation of public schools unconstitutional. Marshall’s career in law was nothing short of impressive and did not go unnoticed. President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals and President Lyndon B. Johnson later appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. Marshall retired in 1991 and died two years later in 1993.

3. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Commemorated for her successful career in law, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an acclaimed lawyer, U.S. Supreme Court justice, and professor at Rutgers University Law School and Columbia University. Ginsburg was an advocate for gender equality and successfully fought in the United States v. Virginia case which allowed women to be admitted to the formerly male-only Virginia Military Institute.

Ruth first attended Cornell University and later enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956. She transferred to Columbia University to complete her law degree and graduated in 1959. Ginsburg argued a number of Supreme Court cases that supported gender equality. Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980 and 13 years later she served as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

She was commemorated for her work in gender equality and civil rights by being awarded the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award. Ginsburg passed in 2020 from cancer, but her work and accomplishments are continuously recognized and applauded.

4. Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow was a successful lawyer in the late 19th and early 20th century. Darrow is known for taking on the Leopold and Loeb trial of 1924 and the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Leopold and Loeb were charged with the murder of teenage boy Bobby Franks. Darrow’s argument prevented Leopold and Loeb from being sentenced to death and were sentenced to life in prison instead.

Darrow defended John Scopes in the Scopes Monkey Trial for teaching evolution, which was recently made illegal in the state of Tennessee. This trial is one of the most highlighted moments in Darrow’s career as a lawyer. The trial received national publicity and despite Scope being found guilty, the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court of Tennessee over a technicality.

5. Clarence B. Jones

Clarence B. Jones

Clarence B. Jones is a lawyer, legal advisor, and educator that worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Jones began his studies at Columbia University, but was drafted into the army in 1953 before he could graduate. He was discharged after refusing to sign a document that stated he was not involved in the Communist Party and was able to return to complete his Bachelor’s degree.

In 1956, Jones attended the Boston University School of Law where he would earn his law degree. Jones worked with other lawyers on MLK’s trial for tax fraud and they won the case. MLK also wrote a letter of recommendation for Jones to take the bar exam in New York.

Jones continued to work alongside King and even helped him post bail when King was arrested in Alabama during an anti-segregation protest. He later helped MLK draft his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Clarence B. Jones is recognized for his work with Martin Luther King Jr. and as a speechwriter for famous documents such as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and statements made to President John F. Kennedy on behalf of King.

Jones was invited to the White House by President Obama to be honored in 2015. He also authored a book about the famous MLK speech, titled Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation. Jones became a professor at the University of San Francisco and retired after eight years of teaching in 2020.

6. Johnnie Cochran

Johnnie Cochran was a famous lawyer known for his high-profile clients such as O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson. Cochran passed the bar in 1963 in the state of California. He became a Deputy Attorney for Los Angeles’ criminal division and later Assistant District Attorney.

Cochran is most notable for his participation in the defense of the controversial O.J. Simpson trial. He managed to convince the jury of Simpson’s innocence and Simpson was acquitted. Cochran’s law career diminished after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2003. He died in his Los Angeles home in 2005.

7. Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Barack Obama not only served as the 44th president of the United States, but he also practiced law for some time. Obama attended Columbia University in New York City and received a degree in political science in 1983. He would later go on to attend Harvard Law School and graduated with high honors.

Obama became an attorney for the Miner, Barnhill, and Galland law firm. Prior to his first political office campaign, he was also a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Obama became an Illinois State Senator for three terms until 2005. Three years later, Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election against John McCain.

8. Charles Hamilton Houston

Charles Hamilton Houston was a civil rights activist who sought out a career in law to fight against the unfairness of the “separate but equal” doctrine that came from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. Houston began studying at Harvard Law School and graduated with a Doctor of Laws in 1923.

Houston partnered with his father to practice law after he passed the District of Columbia bar exam. He concentrated his law career on the segregation of schools and fought civil rights cases in the Supreme Court. Houston mentored Thurgood Marshall and set the stage for the major Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated public schools. Unfortunately, Houston passed in 1950, four years before he was able witness the successful Brown v. Board ruling.

9. Clara Shortridge Foltz

Clara Shortridge Foltz

Although forgotten in history by many, Clara Shortridge Foltz was an esteemed lawyer and reformist. She moved to California with her family in 1874 where she would become the first female lawyer in the state. At the time, it was very unorthodox for a woman to be working, let alone be a lawyer. In California, only white men were allowed to practice law. This changed when Foltz created the Woman Lawyer’s Bill and was passed through the state Senate in 1878.

The Woman Lawyer’s Bill was a huge accomplishment for women in California who could now legally practice law. Clara went on to continue her law career as the first district attorney in the state and became a leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement in California and helped give women the right to vote before the 19th amendment was passed for all states.

10. Louis Brandeis

Louis Brandeis is most known for his work, “The Right to Privacy”, that was published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890. The article elaborates on the right to privacy and is recognized as adding a new “chapter to our law”. Brandeis attended Harvard Law School and excelled in his classes, earning the title of valedictorian along with the highest grade point average.

Deemed “the people’s lawyer”, Brandeis worked within the Progressive movement and grew wary of the monopolistic economic system that the Industrial Revolution was creating. He began taking on public interest cases without pay. Brandeis was nominated by Woodrow Wilson as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1916. The nomination was very controversial among political parties, specifically the Republican party that supported large corporations and monopolies.

Brandeis received backlash for his “radical” views pertaining to the U.S. economy, so much so that he had to stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve his nomination. Louis Brandeis participated in a number of cases revolving around freedom of speech and the right to privacy.

  • Gilbert v. Minnesota
  • Whitney v. California
  • Olmstead v. United States

Brandeis focused much of his career on social justice and progressivism. His work led to many accomplishments and triumphs for organized labor. Brandeis was a justice of the Supreme Court until 1939 when he retired. He died two years later in 1941.

11. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was an acclaimed American lawyer who is known for his written work of “The Common Law”. Holmes served as a Civil War soldier and attended Harvard Law School in 1866. He passed the bar and continued to practice law with his brother while teaching at Harvard College. Holmes focused much of his research and teachings on Constitutional Law and Jurisprudence.

After Holmes had The Common Law published in 1881, he went on to be a professor at Harvard Law School. Holmes served first as an Associate Justice and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts for 10 years. He was then appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1902 by Theodore Roosevelt. Holmes served on the Supreme Court for 29 years before he retired in 1932.

12. Belva Ann Lockwood

Despite the fact that men ruled over the legal professions at the time, Belva Ann Lockwood was a successful lawyer and woman suffragist. Lockwood began practicing law before she was admitted to the bar until 1873, when she was admitted to the Washington D.C. bar.

Lockwood was previously denied entry to the U.S. Supreme Court bar as only men were permitted. She would overcome this obstacle in 1879 when she was admitted as the first woman for the Supreme Court bar. She also made a historic leap as she became the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Lockwood continued to work civil and criminal trials and did lecture work until she died in 1917.

13. Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan was a lawyer and politician with many accomplishments including becoming the first African American woman to be elected as a Texas state senator. She began studying law at Boston University and practiced law in Houston, Texas after admission to the Massachusetts and Texas bar examination.

In 1960, Jordan managed programs in the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign and tried to run for the House of Representatives in Texas, but did not win. Following her loss, Jordan remained determined and ran for Texas senate and won. Barbara Jordan had a very successful career as a Texas senator. She was involved in the passing of various bills related to fair labor practices including the first minimum wage law in the state.

Her accomplishments did not end at senator as Jordan continued on to become the first African American chief executive in 1972. She gave an outstanding statement on the articles of impeachment for President Richard Nixon and also encouraged civil rights legislation including provisions to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Barbara Jordan served in Congress for three terms before she retired in 1978. After her time in Congress, Jordan became a lecturer at the University of Texas. She later died from pneumonia in 1996.

14. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson was a well-read lawyer who attended the University of Virginia for a short time after receiving his Bachelor’s from Princeton. He was admitted to the Georgia bar and began practicing law in the state. Later, Wilson attended Johns Hopkins University and graduated with a doctorate in history and political science in 1886.

Wilson’s law career was short lived, but his extensive schooling and studies allowed him to immerse himself into politics. Wilson became governor of New Jersey in 1910 and went on to win the 1912 presidential election against Theodore Roosevelt.

During his presidency, Woodrow Wilson accomplished major historical milestones such as establishing the League of Nations and ratifying the 19th amendment and various labor laws. He revisited practicing law after the end of his presidency in 1921, but his practices were not as successful due to his declining health. Wilson died at the age of 67 in 1924.

15. Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The famed author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson also practiced law before becoming the third president of the United States. Jefferson attended boarding school from a young age and attended the College of William and Mary in 1760. Jefferson studied under law professor and founding father George Wythe and was admitted to the Virginia bar.

In 1776, Jefferson along with other delegates convened to write the Declaration of Independence. Within the same year, he became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and served for three years. Jefferson was also responsible for writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which supported the separation of church and state.

Jefferson became the Governor of Virginia, serving two terms from 1779 to 1781, during the Revolutionary War. He received major backlash after fleeing from British military troops that raided Virginia. After Jefferson fleed, he returned to his Monticello home for retirement and to take care of his wife who was ill.

16. Arabella Mansfield

Arabella Mansfield was the first woman to become a lawyer in the United States by passing the Iowa bar examination in 1869. At the time, only men were allowed to take the bar but Mansfield scored highly and challenged the original statute in court. The statute was amended, making Iowa the first state to allow women and minorities to take the bar.

Mansfield had a very successful career as an educator. She lectured at Iowa Wesleyan College and DePauw University and became a dean. Mansfield studied under her brother in a law office prior to taking the bar exam, but instead of practicing law she wanted to focus her career on education and women’s suffrage.

17. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1900, Franklin D. Roosevelt began his studies in law at Harvard College. After he graduated, he remained at Harvard for another year and became editor of the university’s daily newspaper, the Crimson. Franklin decided to extend his study in law at Columbia University, but did not graduate. Despite not finishing his academic career at Columbia, Franklin passed the bar and worked at a law firm in New York City for a short time.

Franklin was encouraged to run for office in the New York state senate in 1911 and won. He was re-elected the following year but did not finish his second term as he accepted an offer to serve as a secretarial assistant to Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of Navy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 and served for four terms. Roosevelt was thrown into the midst of the Great Depression which forced him to enforce policies and programs to provide the U.S. economy with relief and recovery. His famous inaugural speech that stated, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” gave hope to many. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office proved that he was determined to turn the economy around by implementing various programs, such as:

  • Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA)
  • Public Works Administration (PWA)
  • Civilian Conservations Corps (CCC)
  • Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

Roosevelt was also a part of the “Big Three”, who met in the Yalta Conference, securing Joseph Stalin’s promise to join forces in the Second World War and established an organization for peace amongst nations, which became known as the United Nations. Roosevelt died from health issues in 1945 and was succeeded by President Truman.

18. Myra Bradwell

In order to help her husband run his law firm, Myra Bradwell took an interest in the profession. She became more inspired while working as editor-in-chief of her Chicago Legal News weekly publication. As a working woman in the 1850’s, Bradwell did not have much legal control over her business and finances as they were attached to her husband. Bradwell went to the Illinois legislature to be granted a charter so she could take on legal contracts without her husband.

Bradwell was the first woman in Illinois to be admitted to the bar in 1869, but could not legally practice law due to her marriage. This obstacle was brought to the Supreme Court in the Bradwell v. Illinois case in 1873. The outcome of the case did not rule in Bradwell’s favor as the Supreme Court ruled that it did not violate the 14th amendment, which was used in her argument that it violated her rights and privileges.

Myra Bradwell was admitted to the Illinois Supreme Court bar and the U.S. Supreme Court bar in the 1890s, despite not being able to legally practice law. Bradwell continued to oversee her newspaper and used it as an outlet for women’s rights and working within the legal profession.

Final Thoughts

Many lawyers throughout history achieved great heights and established new legislation to improve social, economic, and political issues.

Some lawyers went into politics after practicing law and ran for office to make change, while others used their extensive knowledge and determination to better the laws set forth by the Constitution and help others.

Scroll to Top