The earliest historical references to lawyers can be traced back to orators in the ancient Kingdom of Athens. At the time, any individual could represent herself and the idea of charging a fee was not heard of and even illegal for a significant amount of time. As time progressed, the laws started to become more complex and some people deemed it necessary to obtain a deeper understanding of litigation procedures and hence emerged the first generation of lawyers. The spread of the modern law system has its origins in European colonization throughout the world.
It is only natural that while cultivating an in-depth knowledge base of any nation’s law and constitution, a section of individuals also develops a sense for providing justice for the masses by questioning the status quo. So, it is not surprising to note that some of the most prominent figures in world polity in the industrial age including heads of states, key influencers have been law practitioners. These eminent personalities have decided the course of history by starting national and global movements, redefining societal and political norms and even bagging a Nobel or two. Here is a list of the ten greatest lawyers of this age.
1. Abraham Lincoln:
Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest American statesmen and a gritty lawyer who served as the 16th President of the United States from March 1861 until he was assassinated in April 1865. Abraham Lincoln has in his repertoire the way he led the United States of America through one of its most tumultuous times during the Civil War. Civil War was in all fairness America’s greatest ethical, constitutional, and political crisis. In doing so, he saved the Union from disintegration, abolished slavery, strengthened the government, and restructured the economy.
Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky and was self-educated. He became a lawyer in Illinois. He was also a Whig Party leader, and was thereby elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, where he served for eight years. He was then elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846. At the House of Representatives, Lincoln advocated for rapid modernization of the economy and was against the Mexican–American War. After a single term at the United States House of Representatives, Lincoln went back to Illinois and carried on with his law practice. Abraham Lincoln decided to make a foray into the politics again in 1854 as he proved to be one of the few instrumental in building the new Republican Party. He spearheaded the 1858 election campaign for the US Senator from Illinois, Lincoln participated in quite a few highly publicized debates with his opponent and rival, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln was way ahead of his times as he spoke out against the expansion of slavery, but ended up on the losing side. In 1860, Lincoln was chosen as the Republican Party presidential nomination, despite most of the Republican delegates originally favored other candidates. As expected, Lincoln gained very little to no support from the slave holding states of the South, he gained overwhelming victories in the North and was elected as the President of the United States of America in 1860.
Efforts to bridge the differences between North and South were ongoing before Lincoln had even set foot in the White House. But Lincoln’s victory and election as the President of the United States of America led the seven southern slave states to separate from the United States and to come up with their own Confederate States of America. The Confederate States then attacked the Fort Sumter. This attack stimulated and enticed the North to rally its weight behind the Union. Lincoln as the President fought hard by pitting all his opponents against each other, by carefully planned political patronage, and by appealing to the American people with his powers of oratory. His Gettysburg Address went on to become an iconic endorsement of nationalism, republicanism, equal rights, liberty, and democracy. Lincoln minutely oversaw the war effort, especially the selection of generals for the war. He also made highly important decisions on the war strategy that Union undertook, including a naval blockade that shut down the South’s trade. Abraham Lincoln made use of the U.S. Army to ensure protection for the escaped slaves. He also encouraged the adjoining states to outlaw slavery, and succeeding in pushing through the Congress, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which permanently outlawed slavery.
2. F.Lee Bailey:
Francis Lee Bailey, Jr. is one of the most famous criminal defense attorneys. He served as an attorney in the re-trial of osteopathic physician Sam Sheppard amongst many of his high profile criminal defense cases. He was also one of the lawyers in the defense team for the O. J. Simpson murder case
Francis Bailey was born in Massachusetts. His mother was a teacher and nursery school director. Bailey graduated from Kimball Union Academy in 1950. He then went on to study at Harvard College but had to drop out in 1952 to join the United States Marine Corps. He was enrolled as a jet fighter pilot and served as a squadron legal officer till he resigned from his commission in 1956.
He returned to Harvard School for a very short time before he was admitted to Boston University School of Law in 1957. He achieved the highest grade point average in the Boston University School of Law’s history.
In 1954, Sam Sheppard was found to be the guilty party in the murder of his wife Marilyn. In the 1960s, Bailey was hired by Sheppard’s brother Stephen to help in Sheppard’s appeal against the punishment meted out to him. In 1966, Bailey was able to successfully argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that Sheppard had been denied due process during the original trial and won a re-trial. In the ensuing re-trial, a not-guilty verdict was declared by the jury. This case proved fundamental in establishing Bailey’s reputation as a skilled defense attorney.
3. Barack Obama:
Barack Hussein Obama II is one of the most famous American politicians who served as the 44th President of the United States for 2 consecutive tenures from 2009 to 2017. Barack Obama was the first African American to become the President of the United States of America. Previously, he was the junior United States Senator from Illinois from 2005 to 2008. He also served in the Illinois State Senate from 1997 until 2004.
Obama was born on August 4, 1961 in Hawaii to a white mother and a black father. His mother, Ann Dunham was born in Kansas and was mostly of English descent with some German, Irish, Scottish, Swiss, and Welsh ancestry. His father, Barack Obama Sr. was a Luo Kenyan man from Nyang’oma Kogelo.
Obama’s parents divorced in March 1964 when Obama Sr. returned to Kenya where he married for a third time. In 1963, Dunham met Lolo Soetoro, who was an Indonesian at the University of Hawaii. The couple married in 1965 but Lolo returned to Indonesia in 1966. His wife and stepson followed sixteen months later in 1967. Obama attended local Indonesian-language schools from age 6 to age 10. During his stay in Indonesia, Obama’s step-father, Lolo Soetoro taught him to be resilient and gave him “a pretty hardheaded assessment of how the world works”, according to Barack Obama.
In 1971, Obama returned from Indonesia alone to Honolulu to live with his maternal grandparents. He attended Punahou School— a private college preparatory school— with the aid of a scholarship from fifth grade until he graduated from high school in 1979. His mother died in 1995 in Hawaii following unsuccessful treatment for ovarian cancer and uterine cancer.
After finishing high school in 1979, Obama decided to move to Los Angeles and attend the Occidental College. In February 1981, Obama made his first public speech, calling for Occidental to participate in the disinvestment from South Africa in response to South Africa’s policy of apartheid. In 1981, he enrolled in Columbia University in New York City, where he majored in political science and English literature. He went on to graduate with a BA degree in 1983.
Two years after graduating from Columbia in 1985, Obama found himself back in Chicago where he was hired as the director of the Developing Communities Project, a church-based community organization. He worked there from June 1985 to May 1988.
Obama then entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1988 and was elected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year itself. He then became the president of the journal in his second year and went on to become the research assistant to the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe while at Harvard for two years. He graduated with a JD degree magna cum laude from Harvard in 1991 and thereafter returned to Chicago. Since Obama was the first president of the Harvard Law Review, he was able to garner national media attention and won himself a publishing contract and advance for a book about race relations. The book was published in 1995 as Dreams from My Father.
In 1991, Obama was offered a two-year position as Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School to work on his first book which he accepted. In 1993, he joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, which was a 13-attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development. He was an associate there for three years from 1993 to 1996. From 1994 to 2002, Obama served on the boards of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago which in 1985 had been the first foundation to fund the Developing Communities Project.
4. Mary Jo White:
Mary Jo White is one of the most famous female attorneys in the world. She served as the 31st Head of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 2013 to 2017. She is also the first only woman thus far to be the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. She served as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002. In Januray, 2013, White was nominated by the President, Barack Obama to replace Elisse B. Walter as Chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In 2014, she was chosen amongst the 100 most powerful women in the world.
White was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and spent her formative years in McLean, Virginia. She received a B.A. from the College of William & Mary in 1970 and an M.A. in psychology in 1971 from The New School for Social Research. She then went on to pursue law from Columbia Law School in 1974.
White had a meteoric rise through the ranks and became Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York in December 1992, and in March 1993 was appointed by President Bill Clinton as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. She is renowned for having led the prosecution of the mobster, John Gotti and overseen prosecution of the terrorists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, chief among them Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and Ramzi Yousef.
For 10 years, she was chair of the litigation department at Debevoise & Plimpton, a private firm whose core practices and expertise are fixated on the success of Wall Street financial firms. The Huffington Post called her “a well-respected attorney who won high-profile cases against mobsters, terrorists and financial fraudsters over the course of nearly a decade as the U.S. attorney for Manhattan.”
5. Johnnie Cochran:
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. is one of the most well known faces in the American law scene who is remembered for his leadership in the defense and criminal acquittal of O.J. Simpson for the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman.
Cochran had built himself quite the repertoire of clients he had represented ranging from Sean Combs during his trial on gun and bribery charges, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Todd Bridges, football player Jim Brown, Snoop Dogg, former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, 1992 Los Angeles riot beating victim Reginald Oliver Denny, and inmate and activist Geronimo Pratt. He also represented the famous track and field athlete Marion Jones when she was charged with doping during her high school track career. Cochran made a name for himself for his silky smooth skills in the courtroom along with his stance against police brutality.
Cochran passed the bar in 1963 and took up his first job as a deputy city attorney in the criminal division in Los Angeles. Two years later, Cochran decided to open his own private practice, Cochran, Atkins & Evans, in Los Angeles. In his first noteworthy case, Cochran sued several police officers while representing an African-American widow who accused them of killing her husband, Leonard Deadwyler. Cochran went on to lose the case but he became an advocate against police brutality. He won the OJ Simpson case basing the entire trial on police brutality and negligence.
6. John Adams:
John Adams was an attorney in the United States of America who also served as a President of the United States from 1797–1801. He was the second President as well as the first Vice President for United States of America from 1789 to 1797. He was a lot of things including a lawyer, a diplomat, a statesman, a political theorist along with being a Founding Father for the United States of America. Being one of the founding fathers for The United States of America, he was a leader of the movement for American freedom from the reign of the Great Britain.
John Adams worked in tandem with his cousin, the revolutionary leader Samuel Adams. He was able to establish his own distinction as he provided a successful but unpopular legal defense of the defendants who were the British soldiers, after the Boston Massacre. Adams was a Congress representative from Massachusetts as he played a major role in coaxing Congress to announce independence from the United Kingdom. He also helped Thomas Jefferson in drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He also made significant contribution as a diplomat in Europe as he negotiated the peace treaty with United Kingdom, and managed to source important government loans from Amsterdam lenders. Adams was also one of the authors of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780.
Adams’s stellar work and contribution as a revolutionary helped him secure two consecutive terms as President George Washington’s deputy from 1789 to 1797. After serving as the Vice President for 2 consecutive terms, he was elected as the President of the United States in 1796. The most important accomplishment under the presidency of John Adams was a peaceful resolution of a quasi-conflict with France. Adams laid the foundation for strengthening of American Navy and owing to his strong stance on defense, Adams is often called the “father of the American Navy.” John Adams was also the first President who resided in the executive mansion, now known as the White House.
7. Clarence Darrow:
Clarence Seward Darrow was one of the wittiest lawyers that the world has ever witnessed. He has in his repertoire a handful of high-profile trials of the early 20th century. These cases include defense of teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb for murdering 14-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks in 1924, defense of the teacher John T. Scopes in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial (1925) along with a few other highly publicized cases. Darrow’s wit and articulateness set him apart from most of his peers and earned him the nickname of ‘the sophisticated country lawyer’.
Clarence Darrow hails from the small town of Kinsman, Ohio. He was the fifth son born to Amirus and Emily Eddy. Both his families on his father’s and mother’s side had deep roots in colonial New England, and most of his ancestors had played a prominent role in the American Revolution.
Clarence in his youth attended Allegheny College and the University of Michigan Law School, but could not graduate from any of them. He had been attending the Allegheny College for a solitary year before the Panic of 1873 struck. Darrow then decided that he could not remain a financial burden to his father anymore. He spent his next three years teaching in the winter in a country community. He studied law on his own during the next three years and took the Ohio bar exam and passed in 1878.
Clarence Darrow thereafter opened his first little law office in Andover, Ohio, a small farming town just ten miles from Kinsman where he gradually built up his career for the next 2 years. After two years Darrow decided to move his practice to Ashtabula, Ohio. In 1924, Darrow accepted the seemingly ‘close and shut’ case of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, the teenage sons of two wealthy Chicago families who had admitted to kidnapping and murder of Bobby Franks who was just a 14-year-old boy, from their neighborhood. They had admitted to their crimes by stating, “The thing that prompted Dick to want to do this thing and prompted me to want to do this thing was a sort of pure love of excitement… the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different… the satisfaction and the ego of putting something over.”
Darrow had Leopold and Loeb confess to the crimes and plead guilty so as to avoid a hostile jury. In doing so, the trial became a long sentencing hearing in which Darrow contended, with the help of expert testimony, that Leopold and Loeb were mentally diseased. Darrow’s closing argument lasted for 12 hours. Both the boys were sent to mental institutions and averted hanging.
8. Ram Jethmalani:
Ram Boolchand Jethmalani is one of the most famous Indian lawyer turned politician. He has also served as India’s Union Law Minister and as chairman of the Bar Council of India. He is, at present, the highest-paid Indian attorney. Ram Jethmalani received the LL.B. degree at the young age of 17 and started practicing in his hometown, which is now in Pakistan. Ram Jethmalani kicked off his law career as Professor in Sindh before partition. He had also started work in his own law firm in Karachi. But in February 1948, he had to flee to India after the riots broke out in Karachi. He moved to Mumbai as a refugee and had to begin his life anew.
Jethmalani is a well-known face in the legal circles in India. Even though his forte lies in criminal law, he has appeared in many high-profile civil cases. He is well known for defending known criminals from Rajiv Gandhi’s killers to Indira Gandhi’s killers to Harshad Mehta to Ketan Parekh to underworld don, Haji Mastan. He also defended LK Advani in the Hawala Scam along with Amit Shah in Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. On 7 May 2010 he was elected as the president of Supreme Court Bar Association. Ram Jethmalani seeks a retainer fee of INR 1 crore along with INR 22 lakh fee on a per appearance basis.
9. Dan K. Webb:
Daniel K. “Dan” Webb is an American attorney and former U.S. attorney, renowned for his involvement and contribution in high-profile prosecutions and corporate defense. Webb graduated from Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois and then went on to attend Loyola University Chicago School of Law. He then received a J.D. in 1970.
Webb is a former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. He served in this position from 1981 to 1985. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the special prosecutions division of the U.S. attorney’s office of the Northern District of Illinois from 1970 to 1976. In 1990, Webb received international proclaim for exposing corruption all levels during his prosecution of retired Admiral John Poindexter in the Iran–Contra affair. Though the convictions were overturned on appeal, his greatest achievement remains his role in exposing corruption at all levels during the Iran-Contra trials. This case even included an interrogation of Ronald Reagan.
Then as a federal prosecutor in Illinois, he gained fame for his lead and stellar contribution in the Operation Greylord investigations into judicial corruption in Cook County, Illinois. After leaving public service, his focus was on defense, especially of white-collar crime and allegations of corporate malfeasance. He was lead defense trial counsel for General Electric in a price-fixing case. He also represented Microsoft in antitrust litigation. He then went on to represent Philip Morris in its tobacco-related litigation. He now serves as a co-executive chairman of the Winston & Strawn law firm.
10. Joe Jamail:
Joseph Dahr Jamail Jr. was one of the most famous American attorneys. His profession put him in good stead as he was one of the wealthiest lawyers of his time too. The wealthiest practicing lawyer in America at his time, he was lovingly called the “King of Torts”.
In 2011, Forbes had estimated his net worth as US $1.5 billion, which at that time made him the 833rd richest person in the world. In 2014, the year before his death, Forbes estimated his net worth at $1.7 billion, making him the 373rd richest person in the United States of America. Joseph Jamail died on December 23, 2015 in Houston.
Jamail was born into a Lebanese family in Texas. He completed his schooling from St. Thomas High School in Houston, Texas. He then went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin for a single semester before he joined the United States Marine Corps in 1943 in lieu of the World War II.
Joseph served for the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he returned to University of Texas. He completed his B.A. in 1950 and then enrolled into The University of Texas School of Law where he received his J.D. in 1953. In 1985, Jamail represented Pennzoil, the American oil company. The Pennzoil CEO at that time, Hugh Liedtke was Jamail’s close friend, and Jamail therefore agreed to represent Pennzoil in a lawsuit against Texaco. Pennzoil won the lawsuit and he was paid US $335 million as contingency fee.
Jamail was well-known in the law circles for his zealous, belligerent and sometimes bordering on abrasive advocacy for his clients; a tendency that has been pointed out in the National Law Journal, by the Supreme Court of Delaware. In 1986, The University of Texas School of Law bestowed an honor on Joseph Jamail by creating the Joseph D. Jamail Centennial Chair in Law and Advocacy. His son is also a practicing lawyer in Texas.