Law Day 2014: 10 famous people who were lawyers

National Constitution Center

May 1 is Law Day, an event that honors “liberty, justice and equality under law which our forefathers bequeathed” to the United States.

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Those were the words of President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, when he issued a proclamation urging the legal profession and the media to promote and participate in the celebration. Congress added Law Day to the federal code three years later.

Today, the American Bar Association helps to coordinate Law Day as a series of public and private events for people of all types, including educators and students who engage in activities that promote learning.

The theme of Law Day 2013 is the movement for civil and human rights in America. President Barack Obama has issued the annual Law Day proclamation to ““honor the courageous men and women who fought to bring those ageless ideals of freedom and fairness into the rule of law—from the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

By the way, the president is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and a former lecturer on constitutional law. In fact, 24 presidents were lawyers at some point in their careers.

And among the Founding Fathers, 35 of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were lawyers or had legal training.

In honor of Law Day, here’s a look at 10 people you may recognize who were lawyers at some point in their lives.

1. Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton was admitted to the bar when he was 25 years old and learned on the job. He had a successful firm, where he specialized in maritime litigation. Hamilton gave it up to enter public service, and returned to the firm in 1795 to pay for his expenses.

2. Aaron Burr

Burr was a formidable attorney in his own right and also appeared with Hamilton early in his career in court proceedings. (However, the legend that they were law partners isn’t true.) Maria Reynolds, the woman at the center of a sex scandal involving Hamilton, was represented by Burr in her divorce case. After leaving public life, Burr had a successful law practice.

3. Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s abilities as a lawyer were legendary even before he was elected president in 1860. Unlike Hamilton and Burr, Lincoln had little formal schooling. He also always had a law partner. Lincoln argued one case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which he lost. His skills were reading juries and making oral arguments.

4. Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi studied law in London, briefly practiced in India, and then he went to South Africa, where he spent two decades. Gandhi originally went there as a legal adviser, but his life changed as he became an advocate for the rights of the oppressed.

5. Clarence Darrow

Many people know the character of Darrow from the play and movie, Inherit the Wind, which is a fictionalized portrayal of the Scopes monkey trial. (His name was changed in the play to “Henry Drummond”.) His high-profile roles in the cases of accused murderers Leopold and Loeb, union leader Eugene Debs, and the McNamara brothers made him a household name.

6. Thurgood Marshall

The future Supreme Court justice had a stellar legal career. He was the chief legal counsel for the NAACP and won his first Supreme Court case at the age of 32. Marshall won 29 out of 32 cases he argued in front of the high court, including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Marshall joined the Supreme Court in 1967 as its first African-American member.

7. Sandra Day O’Connor

O’Connor earned her law degree at Stanford, where she graduated third in her class in 1952. But O’Connor couldn’t get a job in a legal position at a California law firm because of her gender. (She reportedly had offers to be a secretary instead.) O’Connor took several positions as an attorney in public agencies and started her own law firm in Arizona in 1957. After a return to public service, O’Connor joined the Supreme Court in 1981 as its first female justice.

8. Janet Reno

Like President Obama, Reno is a Harvard Law graduate. She was a partner in a private Florida law firm before going into public service. In 1993, Reno became the first woman to be confirmed as the attorney general of the United States.

9. John Grisham

John Grisham isn’t really famous for his legal career. It is his series of bestselling books, which spawned several blockbuster movies, that are his biggest contributions to the legal community. He worked for a decade as a trial lawyer while pursuing an interest in writing. His second book, The Firm, became a national hit, and he’s sold more than 100 million books  in his writing career.

10. Nelson Mandela

The anti-apartheid icon was also a lawyer. He was the only black person in his law class and in 1952, Mandela and his partner, Oliver Tambo, established the first black law firm in South Africa. His role in the African National Congress soon eclipsed his legal career.

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