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Trailblazers in the Law: Historically Significant Lawyers


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  • These historically significant lawyers changed the practice of law for the better
  • Belva Lockwood was instrumental in passing a bill allowing women to have the same access to the bar as male colleagues in 1879
  • Charles Hamilton Houston’s brilliant legal strategy laid the groundwork for the eventual ruling in Brown v. Board of Education

As lawyers or law students, you’re sure to have a list of legal types whose professional skills you admire and may even want to pattern your career after some of them.

Now, you might be interested in these particular lawyers because of how successful they’ve been in litigation or how quickly they’ve been able to rise through the ranks at their firm. But make sure there’s room on your list of admirable lawyers for those who are important because of the effect they’ve had on our country’s laws and the legal world in general. These lawyers are historically significant not just because of how successful they were, but because of how they changed the practice of law for the better.

John Marshall is considered one of the country’s most influential Supreme Court justices. In 1803, Marshall established the doctrine of judicial review, which is considered one of the foundations of U.S. constitutional law. It gave the Supreme Court the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, cementing the government’s commitment to checks and balances.

Belva Lockwood was instrumental in working towards equal pay for women. Lockwood was a lawyer of firsts: She was the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the first woman to run for president in 1884. Lockwood drafted and lobbied Congress to pass an anti-discrimination bill allowing women to have the same access to the bar as male colleagues; it was finally signed into law in 1879. Women lawyers may not exactly have it easy in modern times, but the ability to practice at all is owed in great part to Belva Lockwood.

Clarence Darrow is a name we all know—the formerly small-town lawyer whose emotional oratorical style was known to move juries to find in his favor. His defense of John Scopes in the famous trial that came to be known as the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial became the stuff of plays and movies still enjoyed today. Darrow’s argument directly laid the foundation for secular, fact-based science instruction in American public schools. What lawyer wouldn’t want that kind of legacy?

What makes a lawyer historically significant in your opinion?

Charles Hamilton Houston is often called “the man who killed Jim Crow.” An African American attorney who trained the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Houston famously demonstrated the fallacy of “separate but equal.” Though he wasn’t able to see the end of Jim Crow before his death in 1950, his brilliant legal strategy laid the groundwork for the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Thurgood Marshall, the great-grandson of a slave, was the first African American Supreme Court justice. Marshall is known not only for arguing more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than anyone else, but also for being an essential part of the civil rights revolution. He is practically worshipped because of his most famous victory: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, in which the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” public education was unconstitutional.