9 Famous and Innovative Black Lawyers in History (2023)

Saturday 4th February 2023

Ocean 2020American Bar AssociationAttorney Profile Report, there are more black lawyers every year. Despite the increase, African Americans currently make up only 5% of all attorneys in the US. Compared to their presence in the general US population (13.4%), African Americans are significantly underrepresented in the legal profession.

Advances in representation are key to a diverse legal landscape that ensures fair outcomes for more communities, less bias, and lower barriers to entry for people of color into the legal profession. To that end, we celebrate nine groundbreaking African American lawyers who not only persevered, but with their tenacity and steadfastness, shaped the world as we know it.

1. Jane Bolin

9 Famous and Innovative Black Lawyers in History (1)

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At the top of the list is the amazing Jane Bolin, who was the first of many things. Jane was not only the first black female judge in the history of the United States, but also the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first black woman to join the New York City Bar,jalso the first black woman to join the New York legal department.

At first she was not allowed to enroll at Vassar College, which then refused admission to black students, but instead enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, graduating in the top 20 in her class. After being told by a careers advisor in Wellesley that as a black woman she could never get into Yale Law School, she was accepted and graduated in 1931.

She served as a judge on the Domestic Relations Court for 40 years, where her appointment was renewed a whopping three times. During her time as a judge, she was a strong advocate for children's rights and education and fought against racism.

2. Johnnie Cochran

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Perhaps one of the most recognizable names in legal history, Johnny first gained public acclaim for his masterful defense of OJ Simpson. Aside from OJ Simpson, other celebrity clients he represented were Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Tupac.

His clever but controversial strategy, which ultimately led to OJ's acquittal, demonstrated the LAPD's ineptitude and that OJ had been framed for racism.

However, before representing celebrities, Johnnie had a humble upbringing in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era. His great-grandparents were slaves and his grandfather was a sharecropper. Thanks to his parents' strong work ethic, he continued his education at UCLA and later attended Loyola Law School. After passing the bar exam, Johnnie was hired as an attorney for the Los Angeles City District Attorney's Office at the Traffic Court. He won 28 speeding tickets on his first day in court. In the mid-1960s, Johnnie was one of the best trial attorneys in Los Angeles.

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Over the years, Cochran became known for his courtroom plays, which often employed catchy rhetoric such as "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit!" He established himself as the attorney of choice in Hollywood when you needed strong representation. In the 2000s, Johnnie was worth tens of millions.

3. The Obama Barracks

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Not only was he the first black president in history in 2008, but he is also a graduate of Harvard Law School and the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. After law school, he worked for three years as an associate attorney in an Illinois law firm, remaining true to his passion for representing voting rights and discrimination cases. In 1993 he was offered a position as a lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, where he remained for 12 years.

Three years after serving as a professor of constitutional law, he was elected to the Illinois Senate. He continued to rise in politics and was eventually elected to the United States Senate, making him the third African American to be elected in United States history. In 2007, he began his presidential campaign and became the first black president in history. Re-elected in 2013, he remains one of the most famous presidents in history.

4. Willie Gary

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They call him the "Giant Hunter" for a reason: Willie Gary defeated corporate giants in victories that seemed impossible. Perhaps his most famous judgment was winning a$240 million settlement against Disneyfor two men who claimed the original idea for the Wide World of Sports complex had been stolen from them. Besides the Disney case, he also won many other notable settlements worth more than $30 billion.

Before he made national headlines, however, he opened the first African American law firm in his hometown of Florida. In 1994 he founded the Gary Foundation dedicated to youth education and drug prevention. He continues to practice law and also gives motivational speeches across the country.

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5. Charles Hamilton Houston

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He is known as "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow" because of his important contribution to ending racial segregation. In 1922 he was the only black student in his class, and he himself was no stranger to segregation. As the son of a lawyer, he was no stranger to the law and followed in his father's footsteps. He graduated from Harvard Law School and soon after joined his father's law firm.

In addition to fighting Jim Crow's laws, he is known for being a prominent mentor to black lawyers. He encouraged a generation of black lawyers to fight for equality and use anti-discrimination law, most notably Thurgood Marshall, who was the first black Supreme Court justice.

6. Fred Gray

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Working directly with Martin Luther King Jr. as his first civil rights attorney, Fred defended Rosa Parks for her famous refusal to sit in the back of a segregated city bus and is still alive today at 91. He played a significant role in many landmark civil rights cases, including Browder v. Gayle, which alleged that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.

Because of his distinguished career as a pioneering civil rights attorney, he is arguably one of the greatest African American attorneys in history. He received the 2003 Soaring Eagles Award from the Trial Lawyers Association of America's Minority Caucus, which recognizes the difficulties attorneys of color encounter in their pursuit of success.

7. Stern Jones

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Star Jones was a household name from the late '90s through the 2000s as she was one of the original hosts of The View. Often described as controversial at first, The View's concept was a cross-generational group of co-hosts discussing hot topics. Each member of the panel had different and different ideologies and viewpoints that could lead to heated conversations. The show remains a success to this day, largely due to Star's legacy.

However, before joining the daytime program, Star was a prosecutor with the Kings County District Attorney's Office in Brooklyn. Eventually she was promoted to Assistant District Attorney. His no-nonsense approach and charisma soon found himself on his own court show, which was an attempt at a different version of The People's Court and Judge Judy. Although the show was canceled after just one season, Star was officially the first black judge in history.

8. Charlotte E.Ray

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Charlotte E. Ray was the first African American woman to be admitted to the bar in the United States. Ray received a law degree from Howard University and was admitted to the District of Columbia bar in 1872, becoming the first woman to do so. She is said to be trading under the name "C.E. Ray” to have her application judged on her merits and not her gender.

Ray's most famous case came in 1875 and represented Martha Gadley, who was seeking a divorce from her abusive husband. He successfully tried the case in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Although her legal career was interrupted by prejudice, her commitment to public service spilled over into her later career as a public school teacher and civil rights activist.

9 Macon Bolling Allen

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Macon Bolling Allen was the first African American man admitted to the bar and the first black judge in the United States. He was a self-taught attorney who studied for the bar while serving as an apprentice in the law firm of a white abolitionist.

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Allen was a member of the Maine and Massachusetts bars and was initially denied admission to the Maine bar on the grounds that he was "not a legal citizen." He was appointed Justice of the Peace in Middlesex County in 1947. In 1868 he co-founded the first black law firm in the United States with Robert Brown Elliot and William J. Whipper. Allen also served as a judge in South Carolina during Reconstruction.

Pioneer for future generations of lawyers

Thanks to these revolutionary lawyers who so boldly paved the way, the legal profession is far more diverse than it was 100 years ago. However, there is still much work to be done to improve diversity in the legal profession. Black attorneys remain the most underrepresented ethnicity in the United States, and diversity matters in society at large, and the legal world is no different. Diversity benefits both lawyers and their clients by offering different perspectives and encouraging a more diverse dialogue.


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