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Top 10 Most Famous Lawyers

While most law school graduates don’t set out to be a famous lawyer, many lawyers have earned national (and even international) acclaim for various reasons. In some cases, their fame is a result of their decision to pursue certain positions or endeavors (whether within or outside of the legal industry). In others, it is simply a byproduct of their effectiveness as an advocate in the legal profession. This becomes clear when we take a look at the most famous lawyers in the United States over the past 250 years.

It is nearly impossible to identify the 10 most famous lawyers in U.S. history. For example, 27 U.S. presidents earned law degrees; and, while some are certainly considered to be more famous than others, any United States president should arguably be included in the Top 10. Then, there are famous people who also happen to be lawyers (like Jerry Springer and Dwayne Woodruff)—though their fame has nothing to do with the practice of law.

Who Are the Most Famous Lawyers in U.S. History?

With this in mind, to develop our list of the Top 10 Most Famous Lawyers, we’ve taken a diverse approach. Our list includes U.S. presidents and United States Supreme Court justices from history, and it includes some of the most well-known lawyers of present day. We’ve also included a lawyer who isn’t known for being a lawyer at all—but instead for writing books about lawyers that have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide.

So, without further ado, here is our list of the Top 10 Most Famous Attorneys in U.S. history:

1. Thomas Jefferson

We’ll start at the beginning. Thomas Jefferson studied law at William & Mary University in Williamsburg, Virginia before going on to become one of the nation’s Founding Fathers and the third president of the United States. Today, he remains one of the most well-known figures in U.S. history—alongside George Washington (who was not a lawyer) and Alexander Hamilton (who was).

Among all of his accomplishments, Thomas Jefferson is perhaps most well known for being the primary author of the Declaration of Independence—at age 33. His legal background undoubtedly helped, with The White House describing Jefferson as “eloquent as a correspondent, but [not as] a public speaker.”

2. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was also a lawyer, though he didn’t go to law school. As TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) explains, “You didn’t need a law degree to practice law in the early 19th century. [Lincoln] borrowed legal treatises from a colleague in the Illinois legislature, took an oral exam, and was admitted to practice law in 1836.”

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is famous for being the 16th president of the United States, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and making the Gettysburg Address during his tenure in the Oval Office. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865.

3. Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow was a lawyer in the late 1800s and early 1900s who became famous for handling several high-profile cases involving trade unions and high-profile criminal defendants. He also helped to lead the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in its early days.

As noted on Wikipedia, Darrow was known as a “sophisticated country lawyer,” and “his wit and eloquence made him one of the most prominent attorneys and civil libertarians in the nation.” Darrow is also widely recognized as one of the “greatest lawyers of the 20th century.”

4. Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall earned his law degree at Howard University. He was famously rejected by the University of Maryland School of Law because of his race, and the school later named its law library in his honor.

After using his law degree in private practice, Marshall took charge of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. During his career as a lawyer, he handled several high-profile cases—including the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954)—before joining the U.S. Supreme Court as its first Black member in 1967.

5. Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor earned her law degree from Stanford Law School at a time when she was just one of five female students in her class. She began her career working for a local county attorney’s office for free, after reportedly turning down a paid position as a legal secretary.

Throughout her legal career, O’Connor would continue to break norms—serving as the first female majority leader in a state senate and eventually as the first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court. During her tenure on the Court, O’Connor played a key role in numerous important decisions, including Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).

6. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Few lawyers are famous enough to be known by their initials, but Ruth Bader Ginsberg became equally well known as “RBG” late in her groundbreaking career. After attending both Harvard Law School (where she earned her J.D.) and Columbia Law School (where she earned her LL.B.), Ginsburg built a reputation as a relentless advocate for gender equality “as a principle of law,” arguing multiple cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ginsburg would later join the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, remaining a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on the bench until her death 27 years later at the age of 87. She was well known for making well-reasoned and eloquent arguments in both concurrence and dissent, including perhaps her most-famous dissenting opinion in the voting rights case of Shelby County v. Holder (2013), where she wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

7. Alan Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz is among the most famous lawyers living today. He is currently a Professor Emeritus at Harvard Law School, which notes that he has been described as one of the nation’s “most distinguished defenders of individual rights,” “the best-known criminal lawyer in the world,” and “the top lawyer of last resort.” As the school also notes, Dershowitz has written more than 1,000 articles published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Harvard Law Review, and Yale Law Journal, among numerous other outlets.

As a lawyer, Dershowitz has fought to protect civil liberties, and he represented some of the most high-profile defendants ever to pass through the criminal justice system. This includes representing O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein, and Donald Trump.

8. Johnnie Cochran

Johnnie Cochran also represented O.J. Simpson, leading the former all-star athlete’s defense during the highly publicized O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995. He earned his law degree from Loyola Law School, reportedly after being inspired by Thurgood Marshall’s victory in Brown v. Board of Education.

Before representing Simpson (among several other high-profile clients), Cochran began his legal career as a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles. In his private practice, Cochran not only represented criminal defendants, but also was instrumental in opposing tort reform and represented plaintiffs in high-profile tort actions, winning hundreds of millions of dollars for his clients. Today, The Cochran Firm is one of the largest plaintiff’s law firms in the United States.

9. Tom Girardi

Tom Girardi rose to fame as the real-life lawyer behind the story of Erin Brockovich, the Hollywood movie from 2000 starring Julia Roberts as the namesake paralegal who plays a central role in exposing the coverup of deadly water contamination in Hinckley, California. Unfortunately, he made headlines again more recently after losing his law license and facing federal charges for wire fraud and other crimes. The charges stem from allegations that he stole at least $18 million from his law firm’s clients over a 10-year period. The judge presiding over Girardi’s criminal case recently determined that he is competent to stand trial; and, if convicted, he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in federal prison.

10. John Grisham

John Grisham earned his law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1981. He subsequently practiced criminal law in the state before being elected as a Mississippi state representative in 1983.

Of course, Grisham is most well-known for his gripping legal novels, including the likes of The Rainmaker, The Pelican Brief, and The Firm. Combined, Grisham’s books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide, making him one of the most successful authors and most famous non-practicing lawyers in the United States in the process.

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Oberheiden P.C. is a federal compliance and defense law firm that represents clients throughout the United States and around the world. The firm’s team includes founding attorney Nick Oberheiden, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Congressional Chairman Trey Gowdy, among several other well-known and highly-respected lawyers and consultants. If you would like to speak with a member of our team, we invite you to get in touch. Call 888-680-1745 or send us a message online to request a complimentary consultation today.

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