Legal Legacy: 5 Famous Lawyers Who Changed the Course of History


From the best Albury lawyers in small-town Australia to the most media-savvy criminal attorneys in New York, legal professionals tend to have a profound impact on the lives of those they serve. On a personal level, the right lawyer can help you fend off frivolous lawsuits, stand up for your rights, and avoid wrongful convictions. On a grander scale, they can work to protect the environment, push for civil rights, or play a pivotal part in world-famous cases. 

With all this in mind, let’s meet five of the most influential lawyers in the world, each of who made a permanent mark on history. 

1. Abraham Lincoln

We’re coming in hot with the sixteenth president of the United States who was, rather astonishingly, a self-taught lawyer. He obtained his license to practice law in 1836, and reports from the time of his presidency suggest that he intended to return to his practice after his term was up. Sadly, he never got the chance. 

All told, the US has actually had 26 lawyer presidents, including Barack Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

2. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Known to most as Mahatma Gandhi (Mahatma meaning “great-souled” or “venerable” in Sanskrit), the leader of India’s independence movement changed the course of history by peacefully rebelling against British colonialism. Like all great leaders, he had his problems and controversies. However, as a proponent of passive resistance, he taught that profound change could be achieved through gentle means. 

You may be surprised to learn that Gandhi launched his young adult life as a lawyer after studying in London. He began practicing law in India in the 1890s before moving to South Africa, where his penchant for political activism began to emerge. 

3. Vladimir Lenin

Lenin is certainly the most infamous lawyer on this list, famous for overthrowing Russian Czar Nicholas II and founding the Soviet Union. Though Karl Marx is generally considered the father of Communism, Lenin was the one who put his ideas into action, forever changing Russian politics and the course of human history.

In the lead-up to the revolution, Lenin’s practice of law made it easy for him to meet with other Marxists and develop a sense of unity in their cause. His legal qualifications, practice, and experience were central to his ability to organize the revolution and take charge as the new leader. 

4. Doug Christie

While it’s tough to beat the infamy of Lenin, Doug Christie had a good crack at it. The Canadian lawyer fought for free speech and regularly represented people in civil cases brought against the police. He was a huge believer in police accountability. So far so good, right? 

Here’s where the controversy comes in. Cristie extended his push for free speech into anti-Semitic territory, defending Nazis and Holocaust deniers in court. Among his clients, Cristie counted alleged Klu Klux Klan leaders, a former Canadian Aryan Nations leader, alleged Nazi war criminals, and alleged distributors of hate propaganda. 

5. Henri Matisse

Though he performed brilliantly at law school and passed all his exams, including the bar, with flying colors, these weren’t the colors Henri Matisse was interested in pursuing. He did take a position as a court administrator in the north of France. However, his heart simply wasn’t in it. 

In Matisse’s case, the history-changing thing he did with his lawyerly qualifications was to abandon them in favor of art. Historians, critics, artists, and art lovers the world over generally agree that this was a wise choice. 

You may not agree with every choice made by each one of these famous lawyers, but there’s no denying they changed the course of history. 

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