Lawyers certainly do a lot of talking. They talk so much that they’ve developed their own language, affectionately termed legalese. So, it’s hardly surprising, amidst all this pontification, that they occasionally stumble upon something truly brilliant.
Whether you’re a law student, a practicing attorney, or just someone who appreciates the power of words, you’ll find enjoyment in these famous quotes from some of the most influential lawyers in history.
Before Abraham Lincoln became the 16th U.S. President, he was a respected lawyer. Like most lawyers at the time, Lincoln was a general practitioner, handling a variety of cases, including debt, slander, divorce, and even murder.
While his nomination for the presidency by the Republican National Convention in May 1860 marked the start of a new chapter, Lincoln continued practicing law at Lincoln-Herndon, the firm he founded with William Herndon, through the summer. He insisted that the sign hanging on their law office remain, letting people know that, once he returned, the legal practice would proceed as usual, unaffected by his presidential tenure.
“Be sure to put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
Early in his career, Clarence Darrow earned a reputation as a staunch defender of workers' rights. However, his career faced a significant challenge due to accusations of jury bribery during a trial. Overcoming this setback, Darrow established himself as a formidable criminal defense lawyer, with his representation of Leopold and Loeb in the 1920s being particularly notable.
Renowned for his legal expertise and vigorous advocacy in the clash of societal ideas, particularly in matters of science and religion, Darrow reached the peak of his fame during the Scopes trial. In this trial, Darrow’s intense courtroom strategies against William Jennings Bryan captivated the nation and highlighted the era's broader cultural conflicts.
“All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike someone they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.”
Johnnie Cochran Jr., a distinguished lawyer born in 1937 in Shreveport, Louisiana, rose to prominence by taking on police brutality cases, particularly those affecting the African American community. Graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, and later Loyola Law School, Cochran's career began in the Los Angeles district attorney's office before he transitioned into private practice.
He gained nationwide fame for representing celebrities like Michael Jackson and notably spearheaded O.J. Simpson's defense in the notorious 1995 murder trial, where he masterfully spotlighted inconsistencies in the prosecution's case with his iconic quote about a glove found at the murder scene.
"If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Affectionately known as "R.B.G." by admirers, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1933, carved a path of legal brilliance, overcoming gender discrimination to become the second woman and first Jewish woman on the United States Supreme Court.
A Cornell graduate, Ginsburg faced and fought gender bias at Harvard Law School before transferring to and excelling at Columbia Law School. Despite her academic prowess, she encountered hiring prejudices but persevered, starting her career as a law clerk and later becoming a professor at Rutgers and Columbia. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her as a Supreme Court Justice, where she championed gender equality, most notably in the United States v. Virginia case.
“Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks. That means don’t do it just for yourself. You will want to leave the world a little better for your having lived.”
Thurgood Marshall profoundly shaped American legal history as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice and a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement.
Educated at Howard University under mentor Charles Houston, Marshall's legal career was marked by his unwavering fight against racial discrimination, notably winning the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education case.
Appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, Thurgood Marshall's 24-year tenure on the Supreme Court was marked by a steadfast commitment to liberal principles, particularly concerning individual rights and social issues. His legacy as a staunch advocate for equality and justice endured throughout his career, remaining a defining aspect of his life even after his retirement in 1991, and continuing to resonate until his passing in 1993.
"The measure of a country's greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis."
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, revered globally as Mahatma or "the great-souled one," was not just a symbol of nonviolent resistance but also a distinguished lawyer.
Gandhi's journey began in South Africa, where he initially embarked on his legal career and later became an activist, advocating for the rights of the Indian community against discriminatory practices. His legal background played a crucial role in shaping his methods of civil disobedience and peaceful negotiation, which he later employed effectively in India's fight for independence from British rule.
Gandhi's ascetic lifestyle and deep Hindu faith underscored his commitment to social justice, leading him to several imprisonments and hunger strikes to address the oppression of the marginalized. Even after India's independence in 1947, he tirelessly sought harmony between Hindus and Muslims, a mission tragically cut short by his assassination in 1948.
Gandhi's legacy, rooted in his legal acumen and moral philosophy, continues to inspire peaceful protest movements for social change worldwide.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
John Grisham, an American writer born in 1955 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, rose to fame with his legal thrillers that captivated readers and were often adapted into films.
Before his literary success, Grisham practiced law and served in the Mississippi state legislature from 1984 to 1989.
His legal career significantly influenced his writing, starting with his first novel, A Time to Kill, inspired by a trial he witnessed. Although initially it wasn't a hit, the subsequent success of his second novel, The Firm, turned Grisham into a best-selling author and allowed him to retire from law to write full-time.
“I'm alone and outgunned, scared and inexperienced, but I'm right.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Born on January 3, 106 B.C.E., Marcus Tullius Cicero was a prominent figure during the Roman Republic's decline, excelling as an orator, lawyer, politician, and philosopher.
Renowned for his eloquence in the courtroom, Cicero's legal prowess bolstered his political career and philosophical writings, which remain crucial to understanding that tumultuous era.
Cicero's philosophical influence persisted for centuries, significantly shaping thinkers like St. Augustine, who credited Cicero's "Hortensius" for his spiritual transformation and integrated his definition of a commonwealth into theological discourse. Cicero's multifaceted legacy, tragically ended by his murder on December 7, 43 B.C.E., continues to be a valuable source of historical and philosophical insight.
“The more laws, the less justice.”
Amal Clooney is a Lebanese-British barrister renowned for her work in international law and human rights.
Admitted to the bar in New York in 2002 and in England and Wales in 2010, Clooney has represented clients before prestigious international courts, including the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Human Rights. She has fiercely advocated for victims of mass atrocities, genocide, and sexual violence, representing notable figures such as former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Clooney's legal acumen and commitment to justice have also led her to defend freedom of the press, exemplified by her representation of journalists like Maria Ressa and her fight against human rights abuses by entities like ISIS.
Beyond her legal practice, Clooney serves as a visiting faculty member at Columbia Law School and holds various appointments with the UK government, the UN, and as a UK Special Envoy on Media Freedom. Alongside her husband, actor George Clooney, she co-founded the Clooney Foundation for Justice in 2016, aiming to promote justice worldwide, especially in the face of authoritarianism and human rights violations.
“Be courageous. Challenge orthodoxy. Stand up for what you believe in. When you are in your rocking chair talking to your grandchildren many years from now, be sure you have a good story to tell."
Atticus Finch, though a fictional character from Harper Lee's iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, stands as one of the most revered figures in legal fiction.
Portrayed as a principled and compassionate lawyer in the racially divided town of Maycomb, Alabama, Finch is renowned for his moral fortitude and unwavering commitment to justice, especially as he defends Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly accused of a crime.
Finch's dedication to upholding the law and his profound respect for human dignity have made him an enduring symbol of integrity and righteousness in the legal profession. Despite his fictional status, Atticus Finch's impact is profoundly real; he has inspired countless individuals to pursue careers in law, including Enjuris partner and South Carolina personal injury lawyer Mark Chappel.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”