lady justice

As a law student, you might feel overwhelmed by or even resentful of the lawyers you have to study — after all, they keep you up at night studying and memorizing their court cases, arguments, and philosophies. But beyond the numbers, dates, and motions that you have to study for the class, try to take some time to consider the contextual history of these truly great lawyers. The sacrifices they made to support and revolutionize the law, human rights loyally, and their country’s judicial system are both humbling and impressive.

  1. Domitius Ulpianus: This ancient jurist and writer are behind about a third of the material from Emperor Justinian’s Digest of Roman Law, even though 39 jurists worked on the book Pandects. The Times UK notes, too, that Domitius — who lived around AD 160-228 — has influenced the legal structure and actual laws of over 60 countries worldwide.
  2. John Adams: Before John Adams was elected the second president of the United States, he was already making revolutionary changes to the American colonies’ social and legal structure. Most respected for his staunch support of the law as he defended British soldiers during the Boston Massacre — which made him very unpopular and even threatened his family’s safety and the existence of his legal practice — John Adams succeeded in convincing the Boston jury to acquit the British captain, a seemingly impossible feat that no other lawyer wanted even to attempt.
  3. Clara S. Foltz: Foltz is best known for being the first female lawyer on the West Coast; although she was first denied admission to the Hastings College of Law because of her sex. Foltz took on her own case, sued the university, and was granted admission. Similarly, Foltz had the California state law changed to allow women and people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds to be accepted by the bar after passing the exam. During her career, Foltz led the women’s suffrage movement and championed the idea of a public defender for indigent criminal defendants, a then-controversial idea that is now standard procedure.
  4. Abraham Lincoln: Regarded as the quiet leader who abolished slavery and united the quarreling states back together, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t always a success or even a big player in politics. A famous graduate of home school, Lincoln served in the Illinois legislator’s lower house and worked as a lawyer. He had his own practice with partners who came and went and worked on all kinds of cases, including criminal, transportation and expansion cases, patent law, and more. While most lawyers today focus on a particular specialty, Lincoln was open to “every kind of business that could come before a prairie lawyer,” as he once said.
  5. Mahatma Gandhi: A devout practitioner of non-violent opposition, Gandhi advocated for Indian independence from the British and the emancipation of Hindu “untouchables,” encouraging Indian Christians, Hindus, and Muslims to unite. But before making such a statement in India, Gandhi studied law in London as a young man, worked in India as a lawyer, and then moved to South Africa, where he fought tirelessly for Indian human rights in the region.
  6. Alan Dershowitz: One of the most famous and influential lawyers in contemporary society, Alan Dershowitz has also taken on — and won — various cases, including celebrity trials and murder cases, involving high-profile figures like Patty Hearst, O.J. Simpson, and Mike Tyson. Also a committed supporter of Jewish issues, Dershowitz is a well-known commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict and has been called one of the “most distinguished defenders of individual rights.” Dershowitz became an assistant professor at Harvard Law School in 1964 when he was just 25 years old and was made full professor three years later.
  7. Sir Thomas More: Sir Thomas More — who has also been named a saint by the Catholic Church — served as a counselor to Henry VIII of England and also as Lord Chancellor. Ultimately executed by Henry VIII for not recognizing the Church of England, More was also a social philosopher who coined the word “utopia” in his book by the same name, a work that spawned an entire literary genre and commented heavily on European politics at the time. During his career, More served England as a lawyer and a public figure, working as a diplomat, Speaker of the House of Commons, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and High Stewart for Oxford and Cambridge universities.
  8. Thurgood Marshall: Though he was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School simply because he was black, Thurgood Marshall had a lifelong appreciation for the law and the U.S. Constitution’s protection of all citizens, instilled in him from his grandfather, a former slave. Marshall ultimately attended Howard University Law School, and he also sued the University of Maryland when the school refused to admit another black student three years after rejecting Marshall. After law school, Marshall worked in New York as the Chief Counsel for the NAACP and was asked to draft the constitution for Ghana and the region that is now Tanzania, two areas that desperately needed the influence of someone as devoted to human rights as Marshall. Marshall fought many major cases over the course of his career, even leading the Brown v. Board of Education case, supporting integration. He is also the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, appointed by John F. Kennedy.
  9. Clarence Darrow: Another committed supporter of protecting individual rights and civil liberties was Clarence Darrow, a lawyer and influential member of the ACLU who infamously represented John T. Scopes in the Scopes Monkey Trial. As the son of a woman’s suffrage supporter mother and abolitionist father, Darrow was an outspoken critic of any laws or individuals encroached upon human rights. As a young man, Darrow served as town counsel for Ashtabula, Ohio, but quickly moved up in his career and eventually worked as a corporate lawyer in Chicago for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company, only to break ties with his employer to represent the leader of the American Railway Union in a case surrounding the Pullman Strike of 1864.
  10. Nelson Mandela: Like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela is most recognized for his campaign for human rights and uniting a country, but he also worked as a lawyer before serving as President of South Africa. While earning a law degree at the University of Witwatersrand, Mandela met his future anti-apartheid activists and friends. His law firm — Mandela and Tambo — was set up after the 1948 election and offered free or low-cost legal counsel to underrepresented blacks. When he was imprisoned for his participation with the banned African National Congress and plotting to overthrow the government, Mandela also enrolled in the University of London’s extension program and received a bachelor of laws.
  11. Thomas Jefferson: Many U.S. presidents were lawyers before officially entering politics, but Thomas Jefferson — writer of the Declaration of Independence — combined both. An influential and prosperous landowner and farmer, Jefferson was a county lieutenant, magistrate, member of the House of Burgesses, and lawyer. He served in the Continental Congress, but after 1776, he returned to Virginia to enter politics at the state level. Later traveling to France to serve the U.S. abroad, Jefferson found his way back to national politics and became the third president of the United States in 1800, after setting the American legal system’s foundation.
  12. Sadie Alexander: The niece of the dean of Howard University, Sadie Tanner actually attended the University of Pennsylvania for undergraduate and graduate school, becoming the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the country. After getting her graduate degree in economics, Sadie became the first African American woman to graduate from law school at the University of Pennsylvania — and the first African American woman to be admitted to the bar in Pennsylvania. In addition to working alongside her husband at his law practice, Sadie served on boards and organizations, including President Harry Truman’s Committee on Human Rights.
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