As with any professional field, the legal industry has its fair share of popular attorneys and famous attorneys who were or are movers and shakers in their own right. Let’s take a look at a list of famous lawyers in history.
Joe Jamail (aka King of Torts)
During his time, Joe Jamail was the richest attorney in the United States and some would argue one of the most famous prosecutors to litigate. He even once walked away from a high-profile case with a $335 million contingency fee and was infamous for his abrasive and uncivil style.
Probably one of the most famous cases won by Jamail was Pennzoil v. Texaco which ended in a jury verdict for $10.53 billion—that’s not a typo. Jamail was known for crushing opponents in the courtroom but he was also committed to the field of law and the success of his clients, he even remembered years later the names of his clients and the details of their cases. He had some powerful advice for aspiring and rising litigators:
- Be authentic in the courtroom. Don’t be fake, people can smell fake and it stinks. Not an exact quote but the sentiments just about sum up this advice.
- Use exacting language. If a jury will encounter pertinent language regarding the case when they deliberate, include that language in your statements and questions.
- Don’t be arrogant but trust your judgment. It’s important to diligently approach each case as if you’re facing a powerful opponent but don’t doubt your judgment. Even your client can be wrong about the right direction for a case so you must trust your own mind when making decisions.
Jamail was not only one of the best lawyers in American history he was a billionaire until the day he died — and managed do earn it all without the help of any legal practice management software.
Abraham Lincoln (aka Honest Abe)
Amongst one of the greatest lawyers of all time, Abraham Lincoln can easily be counted as one of the most famous. Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States and a great American lawyer who was infamous for winning a murder case as a criminal defense attorney by using an almanac to argue his client’s innocence. And because of his upstanding work with his clients, Lincoln eventually earned the reputation and nickname of “Honest Abe.”
In 1857, Duff Armstrong and a man named Norris were accused of killing a man in a drunken brawl. Norris was tried and convicted in another trial while Duff was awaiting his day in court. At this point in Lincoln’s legal career he had over 20 years of practice and had handled over 4000 civil cases and only a few hundred criminal cases. Approximately a dozen of the criminal cases were murder cases, and he lost half of them. But despite the odds being not exactly in his favor, Lincoln took the Duff Armstrong case pro bono as a favor for a friend. At a pivotal point in the case, Lincoln destroyed the testimony of a key witness who claimed to witness the murder because he could see far enough under the moonlight. Lincoln used an almanac to give the impression that the witness could not have seen the murder because there was not enough moonlight at the time of the murder. But while the most famous part of this story is the almanac argument, this alone did not win the case. Lincoln also brought in key witnesses—one person who claimed the weapon used belonged to him not the accused, a doctor who said that the injury to the back of the head could be caused by a blow to the front of the head, and finally he gave an impassioned speech about how much he valued his relationship with the Armstrong family. It was all of that together that got Lincoln’s client acquitted and eventually helped him become one of the most famous lawyers in the U.S..
Clarence Darrow is another famous attorney and one of the best trial lawyers in history. He’s famous for defending high-profile clients in a variety of famous trials in the early 20th century.
One of his most famous defenses was of teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb. In 1925, Nathan Leopold Jr. (17 years old) and Richard Loeb (18-years-old), the teenage sons of two wealthy Chicago families, were accused of kidnapping and killing the 14-year-old Bobby Franks. Chicago newspapers called the case the “Trial of the Century” and Americans around the country awaited the details of the trial as they wondered how such privileged boys could commit such a heinous crime. There was no question of the boy’s guilt because Leopold and Loeb made a full confession of their crimes and even told the police where to collect evidence of the crime. The boys were headed for the death penalty. But Darrow’s closing arguments aimed at emphasizing the age of the boys and asserted that they both had a mental disease. He also argued that it was not right to execute such young boys especially due to their mental condition. And for 12 hours he worked hard to soften the judge with these closing arguments—and it worked. Despite the horror of their crimes, both boys avoided the death penalty.
Mary Jo White
Mary Jo White is one of the greatest lawyers of all time, she is known as fearless and relentless. And she’s famous for overseeing the successful prosecution of John Gotti and the terrorists responsible for the 1983 World Trade Centre bombing. In the 1990s she pursued white collar crime on Wall Street and secured a $340 million fine against Daiwa Bank of Japan for illegally covering up more than $1 billion in trading losses at its New York branch and other crimes. She served as the Chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 2013 until 2017 — just imagine the legal file management for those cases?
The list of famous lawyers could get a lot longer as these are just a few attorneys who have made a huge impact on the legal industry — many of them before computers or legal practice management software at their disposal. Their commitment to the practice of law, their clients, and their true grit is a great example for any lawyer to follow. It’s also important to remember that there are a lot of great American lawyers — past and present — who don’t make it into the history books, who will never be known as the most famous lawyer in America.
But there is no reason that ordinary lawyers can’t be great in their own way as they deliver their best work to their clients and law firms.