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Because of the relative paucity of great works of American legal history (aside from Supreme Court history, long the focus of American legal historians, to the detriment of other equally significant areas of legal history scholarship), generations of lawyers have learned their legal history by reading biographies of great judges and lawyers. Biography can also play an important role in the formation of professional values by providing role models - and models of what to avoid.
One good place to start is with a biography of Thurgood Marshall, arguably America’s single most influential lawyer, who fought racial discrimination in the South as head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, argued and won Brown v. Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court, and then served on the Court for several tumultuous decades. The definitive biography of Marshall has not yet been written. Two useful and interesting works, both valuable, are Carl T. Rowan’s Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall (1993) and Juan Williams’ Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (1998).
One might also read some of the excellent biographies of America’s judicial giants: Jean Edward Smith’s John Marshall, Definer of a Nation (1996); G. Edward White’s Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner Self (1993); Gerald Gunther’s Learned Hand (1994); Andrew L. Kaufman’s Cardozo (1998); or Ed Cray’s Chief Justice (1997), about the life and career of Earl Warren.
There are many more excellent judicial biographies - more than one could list. One book deserving particular focus is Jack Bass’s Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., and the South’s Fight Over Civil Rights (1993), which can provide students with a better understanding of the vast powers and influence of a federal district court judge.
Many of the framers of America’s constitutional republic were lawyers. Students interested in the founding generation might try David McCullough’s John Adams (2001), Joseph J. Ellis’s American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996), Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison (reprint, 1990), or Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2004).
Abraham Lincoln was also shaped profoundly by his legal education and practice. The standard one volume biography is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln (1995), but law students and lawyers may also enjoy Benjamin P. Thomas’ Abraham Lincoln (1952), which offers a very sophisticated understanding of the impact of law on Lincoln’s approach to slavery and preservation of the Union, and John J. Duff’s A. Lincoln, Prairie Lawyer (1960), which focuses exclusively, and in great detail, on Lincoln’s legal education and practice prior to becoming President.
Students interested in great 20th century lawyers (who did not become judges!) might want to read William H. Harbaugh’s Lawyer’s Lawyer: The Life of John W. Davis (1973), about the great Supreme Court advocate, Democratic Presidential candidate, and founder of New York’s excellent corporate law firm Davis, Polk; Evan Thomas’s The Man to See: Edward Bennet Williams, Ultimate Insider, Legendary Trial Lawyer (1991), the story of a talented but deeply flawed Washington, D.C. trial lawyer and rainmaker; Ken Gormley’s Archibald Cox (1997), about the Harvard Law School Professor, Solicitor General, and Watergate Special prosecutor; or James Chace’s Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World (1999), about the corporate lawyer and diplomat.
Students interested in radical lawyering might consider reading Ann Fagan Ginger’s Carol Weiss King, Human Rights Lawyer, 1895-1952 (1993); David J. Langum’s William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America (1999); or Kevin Tierney’s Darrow (1979). Ann Fagan Ginger’s The Relevant Lawyers (1972) provides short biographical essays of a large number of activist lawyers working for progressive social change.
Because women were long prevented from participating in the legal system in any meaningful fashion, there are far too few biographies of excellent women lawyers. To compound this problem, many of the first generation of powerful women lawyers are still practicing and thus have not yet received serious biographical treatment. For example, we still lack first-rate biographies of Justices Sandra O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. One useful corrective is Emily Couric’s Women Lawyers: Perspectives on Success (1984), which provides autobiographical profiles of successful women lawyers working in a variety of professional settings. One might also read some of the excellent autobiographies of women attorneys, such as legal pioneer Constance Baker Motley’s Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography (1998) or Alice Vachss’ Sex Crimes (1993).
Finally, students interested in English legal history might try Catherine Drinker Bowen’s classic The Lion and the Throne, The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke (1956), which examines Coke’s great struggle for the rule of law in Stuart England.