“I do solemnly swear to uphold, protect, and preserve the Constitution…” This is the oath that nearly every US attorney, justice, and even some paralegals commit to. Every legal professional contributes in some way to upholding these rights in their daily work.
Here are seven influential lawyers whose contributions have left an unforgettable mark on today’s legal world by influencing social trends and propelling legislation forward towards a more peaceful, inclusive, ethical, and just world.
#1. Gloria Allred, Women’s rights attorney
Known for taking high-profile and often controversial cases, particularly those involving the protection of women’s rights, Gloria Allred is one of the most prominent female attorneys in the United States.
What drove her to handle such cases? In 2018, Netflix released an original documentary covering some of her most notable cases in “Seeing Allred.” In the documentary, Allred reveals, “My commitment to women comes from my own life experience.”
- Brought cases against high-profile men and celebrities—including President Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roy Moore—while managing the media narrative that surrounded them for her clients
- Named one of “The 50 Most Influential Women Lawyers in America“(National Law Journal, 1998)
- Named one of the “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in California” (California Law Business, 2000 and 2001)
#2. Dr. Clarence B. Jones, Counsel and legal advisor to Martin Luther King Jr.
Clarence Jones played an important role not only for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. He began as King’s personal counsel and legal advisor when King was faced with tax fraud charges by the State of Alabama. He later assisted King with his speeches and drafted the first portion of the historic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. This experience led Jones to write two memoirs.
In recognition of his contributions to the United States, Jones received multiple honors including an honorary doctorate earlier this year. In his 2019 commencement address, Jones told a class of 119 USF Law School graduates, “I have faith that you can change our country and our world. . . I believe that you can be the leaders of a fourth American revolution for social justice and freedom in our country — a revolution to redeem the soul of America, to achieve the beloved community that Dr. King envisioned.”
Check out the trailer for the Clarence B. Jones documentary “I KNOW WHO I AM.”
- Part of the successful defense team for King and Christian leaders in New York Times v. Sullivan which led to a landmark decision on the current law of libel
- Drafted the settlement agreement between the City of Birmingham and Martin Luther King, Jr. to bring about the end of demonstrations and desegregation of department stores and public accommodations
- First African American to be named an allied member of the New York Stock Exchange
- Personally, smuggled the iconic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from Dr. King’s prison cell in Alabama which was later printed and distributed nationally
- Secured bail money from former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who provided the funds for King and other prisoners to be released from Birmingham
- Helped organize the March on Washington
#3. Sandra Day O’Connor, First female justice to serve on the Supreme Court
Sandra Day O’Connor is best known for being the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. In 1981, she was nominated by President Ronald Reagan and approved unanimously by the Senate. During her 20-year career as a justice, she was known to be an unpredictable voter at times and helped promote women’s interests and protect their rights
- Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama
- Drafted the majority opinion in the gender discrimination case Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan
- Served as the swing vote that reaffirmed the Roe v. Wade decision in the abortion rights case Planned Parenthood v. Casey
- Helped protect the rights of young girls in school being harassed by their classmates and held the schools liable for harassment
- Founder of iCivics — a website dedicated to teaching and creatively encouraging America’s youth on civic engagement and government
#4. Thurgood Marshall, Attorney and first African American Supreme Court justice
Prior to becoming the first African American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall had a successful private practice as an attorney. The Howard University alum is perhaps best known for his critical role in ending legal segregation through the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education that distinguished him as a respected social advocate for change.
- Argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court — more than anyone else in history — and won 29
- Successfully sued In Murray v. Pearson, racial discrimination case, which eventually lead to the ruling out of segregation in the state of Maryland
- Named chief legal counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1936
- Named U.S. solicitor general in 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson and was the first African American to assume the position. He was successful in 14 out of the 19 cases that he argued on behalf of the U.S. Government
- In 1961 he was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President John F. Kennedy
Check out the trailer for “Marshall,” a biographical film based on a young Thurgood Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman) during his time as an attorney for the NAACP.
#5. Barbara Jordan, Lawyer, educator, and congresswoman
“There was simply something about her that made you proud to be a part of the country that produced her,” said former Texas governor Ann Richards in remembrance of her colleague. President Bill Clinton said, “Barbara always stirred our national conscience.”
- First woman ever elected to the Texas Senate in 1966
- Invited to the White House by President Lyndon B. Johnson for a preview of his 1967 civil rights message and later became the President Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair of Public Policy in 1982
- Called for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon and gained national praise for her rhetoric and morals
- First woman and African American to deliver a keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention
- Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and appointed to lead the Commission on Immigration Reform by President Bill Clinton in 1994
#6. Jan Schlichtmann, Environmental lawyer
Jan Schlichtmann is a prominent complex civil litigation attorney that specializes in protecting the rights of consumers and toxic torts. Named one of “The Best Lawyers in America” (via a peer review process) and received an AV/preeminent score from the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory.
- Famous for his lawsuit against W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods in which he represented 8 families over leukemia deaths caused by contaminated drinking water in Woburn, Massachusetts. This case was the basis for A Civil Action which won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was made into a film starring John Travolta
- Successfully represented 69 families in Toms River, New Jersey whose children contracted cancer allegedly due to pollution caused by three companies—Ciba Specialty Chemicals, Union Carbide, and United Water Resources
- Cofounded the Legal Broadcast Network (now known as Sequence Media News) to help bring public attention to important issues of law, justice, and the environment
#7. Hugo Grotius, Dutch attorney general, legal scholar, and philosopher
You cannot mention the history of international law without mentioning the 17th–century Dutch jurist, legal scholar, and philosopher. Hugo Grotius. He served as an attorney general of Holland, Zeeland, and West Friesland.
- Author of the De iure belli ac pacis; On the Law of War and Peace (1625) — considered a foundational and significant work in international law
- Known as the “father of modern international law” and a firm opponent of war
- Wrote a book and prepared a brief (against Britain’s King James I) on behalf of the Dutch East India Company about the freedom of the seas in which “cannon-shot range” — about three miles – became an international standard defining territorial waters
These seven attorneys made a powerful impact on the world around them through the practice of law. Whether protecting the rights of women, minorities, consumers or citizens affected by violators of environmental law, these are just a few of the many cases and advocates of a more just and equal society.
Who do you think of when you think of influential lawyers or legal professionals who have made a difference?