With a whopping 39% of today’s lawyers being female, we are not short of significant and famous women lawyers.

While that figure may not seem earth-shattering to some, it is significant given that between 1950 and 1970, women made up only 3% of the profession. 

Along the way, some truly remarkable women have served as attorneys. Today, we celebrate them. 

Admittedly, it is a little difficult to come up with something along the lines of a “Top 10” list of famous female lawyers – there are simply too many women who’ve contributed too much to be omitted from a list such as this. 

So, rather than give you a trite list of noteworthy female barristers, we’ve come up with three distinct categories worth honoring – and we’ve attempted to provide you with the crème de la crème from each group. 

Each woman is arguably worthy of her own full article – and someday, perhaps we’ll provide that. But for today, let’s take a brief look at some of the true female history-makers within the law.

Famous women lawyers

Famous women lawyers have not only broken glass ceilings but have also profoundly shaped the legal landscape.

Their journey from underrepresentation to becoming influential figures in law highlights their resilience, intelligence, and commitment to justice.

These trailblazers have expanded opportunities for women in the field, championed equality, and served as powerful advocates for societal change, making significant contributions to both the profession and the broader community.

As role models, they inspire ongoing efforts toward gender equality and the empowerment of future generations in the legal domain.

Celebrities

It may seem banal to begin such a storied list with a group of celebrity lawyers. Yet, no matter what we may think of them and their rise to fame, they all did an amazing thing for our society – raise awareness and acceptance of women as valued members of the bar.

Judy Sheindlin

Let’s kick off our list of the most famous women lawyers, but perhaps the best known in the media: Judge Judy Sheindlin. She’s a former Manhattan family court judge who became a television icon with her eponymous court show “Judge Judy,” which debuted in 1996. 

Renowned for her sharp wit, no-nonsense attitude, and legal acumen, she quickly captured the American public’s attention. Prior to television, Sheindlin made significant contributions to the legal field, including authoring books and implementing innovative changes in family court. Her show, which ran for 25 years, made her one of television’s highest-paid personalities. 

Nancy Grace

Nancy Grace is a prominent legal commentator and former prosecutor known for her passionate advocacy of victims’ rights. Born in 1959 in Macon, Georgia, Grace’s early career as a felony prosecutor in Atlanta laid the foundation for her transition to television. 

She gained national fame hosting legal analysis shows on CNN’s Headline News and Court TV, where she became known for her brash style and unabashed dedication to justice, particularly in high-profile criminal cases.

Amal Clooney

Amal Clooney, born in 1978 in Beirut, Lebanon, is a distinguished human rights lawyer and activist renowned for her legal work on international law and human rights cases. Educated at Oxford University and the New York University School of Law, Clooney has represented clients before the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. 

While Ms. Clooney may have gained much of her celebrity status from being married to actor George Clooney, she also engages in global humanitarian efforts and teaches at Columbia Law School.

Firsts

The women on this next list were famously first – and perhaps we owe them a debt of gratitude for breaking barriers for the rest of us.

Clara Shortridge Foltz

Clara Shortridge Foltz, born in 1849, broke barriers as the first female attorney in California. In order to achieve this lofty goal, in 1878, she successfully campaigned for the passage of a law allowing women to practice law within the state. 

That’s not the only reason Foltz is first on our list of firsts, however. Among her other famous “firsts,” she was: 

As an aside, in 1930, she unsuccessfully ran for governor of California at the age of 81.

Charlotte E. Ray

Charlotte E. Ray was the first African American female lawyer in the United States, breaking monumental racial and gender barriers in the legal profession. Born in 1850, Ray graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872.

Significantly, she applied to the law school under the genderless name – C.E. Ray – knowing that she was unlikely to be admitted to the program as a woman.  

Ray wasn’t “just” the first African American female attorney, however. She also became the first woman of any race admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. 

Despite her achievements and skills, racial and gender prejudices hindered her legal career. Eventually, she became a teacher and women’s suffrage activist in Brooklyn, NY. Nonetheless, even today, Ray’s legacy as a pioneer for women and African Americans in law endures.

Kamala Harris

In 2020, Kamala Harris made history as the first female Vice President of the United States, which makes her the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history. But while we’re talking firsts, let’s not forget she is also the first African American and first Asian American Vice President. 

Born in 1964 in Oakland, California, Harris’s career includes serving as San Francisco’s District Attorney, California’s Attorney General, and a U.S. Senator. A graduate of Howard University and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, her groundbreaking career is marked by her commitment to justice, equality, and public service.

The Supremes

The women on the following list are perhaps the most impressive of them all – the only six women who have served on the United States Supreme Court in the court’s 235-year history. 

Sandra Day O’Connor

As the first female member of SCOTUS, Sandra Day O’Connor is a worthy bridge between the prior list and this one. 

Justice O’Connor was born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas. President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the high court and appointed her to the bench in 1981, where she served until her retirement in 2006. 

A graduate of Stanford University for both undergraduate and law studies, O’Connor started her career at a time when the legal profession was ubiquitously male. In fact, despite the fact that she graduated at the top of her law school class, no law firm in California would hire her. Thus, she began her legal career as a secretary. She served in that role until the County Attorney’s office in San Mateo took a chance on her after she offered to work for free if she could serve as a lawyer.

Throughout her tenure on the Supreme Court, she was known for her pragmatic approach to law and became a pivotal swing vote in many important decisions, significantly influencing American law and society. Her legacy includes her contributions to women’s rights and her efforts to promote civics education post-retirement.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

You would be seriously hard-pressed to find a more famous women lawyer than the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg – born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. What many people don’t know about this Associate Justice, however, is that she became an iconic figure in the fight for women’s rights and gender equality long before her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. 

A trailblazer, Ginsburg was only the second female and the first Jewish female justice of the Court, where she served with distinction until her death in 2020. 

Educated at Cornell, Harvard, and Columbia Law Schools, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, arguing landmark cases before the Supreme Court. Known for her powerful dissents and commitment to justice, Ginsburg’s legacy as a legal, cultural, and feminist icon endures, inspiring generations to fight for equality.

Sonia Sotomayor

Born in 1954, in the Bronx, New York, to Puerto Rican parents, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor rose from humble beginnings to become the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history. 

Nominated by President Barack Obama, she assumed office in 2009. Sotomayor’s journey from a challenging childhood to the pinnacle of the legal profession embodies everything the American dream is supposed to be. A Princeton University and Yale Law School alumna, she served as an assistant district attorney in New York and a judge on the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals before her Supreme Court appointment. 

Known for her spirited and meticulous legal reasoning, Sotomayor is a passionate advocate for the rights of the disadvantaged and the power of education, making significant contributions to American jurisprudence and society.

Elena Kagan

Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was born in New York City in 1960. She currently serves as the fourth woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Also nominated by President Barack Obama, Justice Kagan took her seat in 2010. 

Kagan’s legal career is marked by a series of pioneering roles, including being the first female Solicitor General of the United States and the first woman to serve as Dean of Harvard Law School. Her academic credentials are equally impressive, with degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. 

On the Supreme Court, Kagan is known for her articulate opinions, sharp intellect, and efforts to build consensus, contributing significantly to the Court’s deliberations and decisions. Her tenure reflects a commitment to clarity, fairness, and the rule of law, influencing key areas of American legal doctrine.

Amy Coney Barrett

The fifth woman to join the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, was born in New Orleans in 1972. She was appointed in 2020. 

Barrett’s legal philosophy is strongly influenced by her conservative views and originalist interpretations of the Constitution. A former law professor at Notre Dame Law School and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Barrett’s appointment solidified a conservative majority on the Court.

As if being an associate justice of the Supreme Court doesn’t keep her busy enough, Justice Barrett is also a proud mom to seven children.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

Ketanji Brown Jackson was born in 1970 in Washington, D.C. Justice Jackson made history in 2022 as the first African American woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Undoubtedly, her nomination by President Joe Biden and subsequent confirmation broke new ground in the Court’s over two-century history. 

A Harvard University and Harvard Law School graduate, Jackson’s distinguished career includes roles as a public defender, federal trial court judge, and justice on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Known for her meticulous legal analysis and commitment to justice, Jackson’s ascent to the Supreme Court marks a significant milestone in the pursuit of diversity and inclusion within the American legal system.

Conclusion

As we reflect on the incredible journeys of these famous women lawyers, it’s clear that their contributions extend far beyond individual accolades.

They have paved the way for future generations, challenging norms and expanding what is possible for women in law.

As we honor these remarkable women, we are reminded of the continuous need to support and celebrate diversity within the legal field, ensuring that the path they have forged continues to grow and inspire.

Perhaps one of the most notable things about this list is all of the powerful female attorneys we simply didn’t have the space to include – people like Gloria Allred, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama.

The good news is that as time passes, lists like this will only continue to get longer and stronger. 

I, for one, am inspired.

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