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Celebrity lawyers: 5 famous people who passed the bar

Feb 5, 2024 | Uncategorised

Many famous people report that their parents wanted them to get a “proper job” – so it’s perhaps no surprise that many actors, writers and celebrities studied law before getting their big break. Meanwhile, the political world is full of significant and not-so-significant figures who didn’t do much with their law degrees.

But how about celebrities who worked as lawyers before making their name in another industry? The list is shorter than you might think.

Perhaps one reason for this is that law is, by all accounts, a profession that’s both time- and energy-consuming. It would take a Herculean effort to practise as a solicitor while also attending auditions, building political alliances or getting really good at the guitar.

Nevertheless, the list contains some of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century: from Castro to Gandhi, from Obama to Bob Mortimer.

You’ll notice that the list is entirely male, a reflection of under-representation in the sectors they became famous in as well as law itself. Perhaps an updated list in 20 years’ time would tell a different, more diverse story.

But without further ado, here are five famous people who worked as lawyers before rising to the top of their chosen fields.

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi is, of course, most famous for his campaign of nonviolent resistance against British rule in India. But before he became leader of the Indian National Congress, he trained in law at the Inner Temple in London.

Historians have shown that his time in London was formative in two ways. First, training as a lawyer meant he had to overcome his shyness in public speaking. And secondly, he became keenly interested in the trade disputes that broke out in London’s poor dockland communities.

He was called to the bar in 1891 and left London for India. There, he struggled to set up a law practice. Then, in 1893, he moved to South Africa to represent the relative of a Muslim shipping merchant.

Gandhi experienced racial discrimination in South Africa, which led him to shift focus to the status of indigenous people in colonial territories. It was a long and winding road to Indian independence, but ultimately law’s loss was India’s gain.

Bob Mortimer

Before becoming a comedian, Bob Mortimer worked as a solicitor – first at Southwark Council then at a private practice in Peckham.

It was during his stint in Peckham that the South London Press crowned him “The Cockroach King” thanks to his work with cockroach infestations in council properties.

But perhaps the apex of his legal career came in 1996 when he gave legal advice to Jarvis Cocker following his stage invasion of Michael Jackson’s performance at the Brit Awards.

John Grisham

John Grisham has sold 300 million copies of his legal thrillers worldwide. But he already had a career in law and politics under his belt before publishing his debut novel A Time to Kill.

He practised criminal law for about a decade before being elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, where he served from 1983 to 1990. As his fortunes in the legislature began to wane, he focused more on his writing.

Grisham would be the first to admit that his writing was inspired by his years as a lawyer, telling an interviewer in 1995:

“I was doing a lot of courtroom work. I was a very young lawyer. But I was handling a lot of court-appointed criminal cases, in trial a lot. And I knew the criminal system, and I knew a lot about it. So I came up with a story about a murder trial, and some of it was based on personal experience. Most of it was not.”

Nicolaus Copernicus

Copernicus is one of the most influential figures in modern science. It was he who presented the first mathematical model of the heliocentric universe, with the sun placed at its centre. It was seminal enough to be dubbed “the Copernican Revolution”.

Copernicus was one of those annoying people who can turn their hand to anything. His CV is longer than an asteroid belt. He was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, economist and even a cathedral canon.

However, it seems that his law studies in Bologna weren’t high on his list of priorities. He took seven years to complete his canon law doctorate, spending his time in Italy hanging out with astronomers and attending humanities lectures.

It was here that he met the astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrar, fast becoming his disciple and assistant. Their findings were recorded in Copernicus’s book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Barack Obama

As well as being the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama was also the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. After leaving Harvard Law School, he became an attorney.

His work as a junior lawyer at Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Gallard centred on cases relating to civil rights, voting rights and wrongful firings. He also spent time on real estate transactions and routine legal matters.

In his biography Dreams from My Father, he described the study of law as at worst “a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power”, and at best “a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience”. He has always said, however, that his time in the law helped pave the way for his political career.

The path from lawyer to president isn’t an unusual one: it’s the second most likely profession for a president to start with after military service. It’s a route that Obama shares with Clinton, Roosevelt and Lincoln among others.

Milners is a trusted legal firm with offices in Leeds, Harrogate, Pontefract and Darlington. We specialise in providing expert, no-nonsense support for businesses and individuals throughout the UK. Need to speak to one of our experienced Yorkshire lawyers? Feel free to get in touch to arrange a consultation.

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