30 Famous People With Law Degrees
Law degree image via Shutterstock
Second-guessing your career choice? You're not alone. Even people who put themselves through many extra years of schooling sometimes end up changing their minds. That's the case with many of these people, who ditched their law degrees in favor of other pursuits — quite successful ones at that.
1. Washington Irving. The author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow once admitted that he just barely squeaked by the bar exam. Still, he was able to combine his lawyerly knowledge with his famous writing flair in 1807, when Aaron Burr was tried for Alexander Hamilton’s murder and Irving served as a trial spectator. He wrote juicy descriptions of the events, such as when Burr "turned his head, looked him full in the face with one of his piercing regards, swept his eye over the whole person from head to foot, as if to scan his dimensions, and then coolly resumed his former position."
2. Charles Perrault. Perrault, better known to some as the author of Tales of Mother Goose in 1697, practiced law for a few years before becoming an aide to his architect brother. Perrault didn’t actually start his fairytale career until after he retired from his government job - he was secretary to King Louis XIV’s finance minister - at the age of 65.
3. John Grisham.
After a series of unsatisfying jobs such as plumber’s assistant and underwear salesman, bestselling author John Grisham decided he should probably get serious about a "real" career. Though his original goal was to become a tax lawyer, he barely passed the first class and decided the thrill of being a trial lawyer was more up his alley. Observing the heart-wrenching rape case of a young girl inspired him to write A Time to Kill.
4. John Cleese. One of the funniest men in the history of comedy has a law degree from no less than Cambridge. But he didn’t leave the jury rolling in the aisles: Cleese never actually practiced. After meeting writing partner Graham Chapman at school, Cleese went on to co-found a little comedy troupe called Monty Python.
5. Geraldo Rivera. A young Gerald Riviera (not Jerry Rivers, as the urban legend says) was one of the top five in his Brooklyn Law School class in 1969. As the lawyer for a Puerto Rican activist group called the Young Lords, Rivera caught the eye of an Eyewitness News exec who offered him a job, and his career in journalism began.
6. Ben Stein. It will surprise no one that brainiac Ben Stein started his professional life as a lawyer. He was the valedictorian of his Yale Law School class in 1970, but Stein makes it clear that his fellow classmates elected him as valedictorian due to his popularity, not his grades.
7. Gerard Butler. Butler worked as a trainee lawyer for a couple of years at a Edinburgh law firm and was just a week away from qualifying when he got fired. Though he didn’t quite make the grade, Butler has admitted that the degree has come in handy during his own brushes with the law.
8. Jerry Springer. After getting his law degree from Northwestern in 1968, Springer got a job as a campaign aide to Robert Kennedy. After Kennedy was assassinated, Springer signed with a law firm in Cincinnati. Wondering how that ended up as a career in scandal journalism? Well, he got involved in local politics and became a small-scale celebrity, which earned him a radio show in the ‘80s. It snowballed from there.
9. Ozzie Nelson. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet star graduated from Rutgers, law degree in hand, in 1930. This no doubt came in handy when he negotiated the first-ever "noncancellable ten-year contract,” an agreement with ABC that gave the Nelsons a salary for 10 years, even if they weren’t working.
10. Jeff Cohen. Unlike most of the others on this list, these next few were famous before getting their law degrees. After getting his B.S. in Business Administration from UC Berkeley - and becoming president of the student body under the campaign slogan “Chunk for President” - the Goonies actor earned his law degree from the UCLA School of Law. He became an entertainment lawyer and founded the firm Cohen & Gardner.
11. Josh Saviano. Joining Jeff Cohen in the lawyer-slash-child-actor category is Josh Saviano, a.k.a. Kevin’s sidekick Paul Pfeiffer in The Wonder Years. After getting his B.A. at Yale, Saviano got his J.D. from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and now practices in New York. Also: he is not Marilyn Manson.
12. Charlie Korsmo. Score another one for child actors who grew up to be responsible, well-adjusted adults. I best remember Korsmo as Siggy Marvin in What About Bob?, but you might remember him as The Kid in Dick Tracy or Peter Pan’s son Jack in Hook. After an appearance in 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait, Korsmo earned a degree in physics from M.I.T. and got a federal job working in missile defense while getting his J.D. from Yale on the side. He then became a professor at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Last year, he was awarded a spot in President Obama’s administration. You go, Siggy Marvin.
13 & 14. Nina and Tim Zagat. The husband-and-wife team met when they were both attending Yale Law School. They were at a dinner party in 1979 when friends began discussing how unreliable a certain major newspaper’s restaurant reviews were. Tim suggested surveying a larger population of people on their foodie opinions instead of relying on the biases of one reviewer, and the Zagat Survey was born.
15. Elizabeth Holloway Marston. Marston and her husband William Moulton Marston created the character Wonder Woman in the early ‘40s, but that was a far cry from her original career. After earning her B.A. in psychology from Mount Holyoke, Elizabeth went to Boston University for her LLB. She wanted to go to Harvard alongside her husband, but Harvard didn’t accept women at the time. It didn’t bother her in the end: “I finished the [Massachusetts Bar] exam in nothing flat and had to go out and sit on the stairs waiting for Bill Marston and another Harvard man to finish.”
16. Jeffrey Chodorow. If the Zagats ever run across restaurateur Chodorow, they’ll have something other than food to discuss. Chodorow has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but it was developing shopping centers that made him a millionaire.
17. Fidel Castro. Castro was admitted to the bar in 1950 after studying at the University of Havana. He had his own firm for a time - Azpiazo, Castro & Resende.
18. Gandhi. Yeah, you feel bad about all of those lawyer jokes now, don’t you? After studying at University College London, he passed the bar in 1891 and returned to India to practice in Bombay. It was then that he figured out being a lawyer may not have been his calling - he was too shy to speak loudly in court.
19. Nelson Mandela. As the first black law partnership in South Africa, the office Mandela and his partner Oliver Tambo shared in Johannesburg is now being made into a museum.
20. Henri Matisse. Mostly to make his lawyer father happy, the French artist went to Paris to study law in 1887. When he came back to Saint-Quentin, he got a job as a clerk in a law office - and promptly came down with appendicitis. His mother brought him oil paints to pass the time during recovery, and that was that. “From the moment I held that box of colors in my hand, I knew this would be my life,” Matisse later said.
21. Wassily Kandinsky. The abstract artist was more involved in abstractions of a different kind during his younger years. He studied law and economics at the University of Moscow and taught them both not long after getting his degree.
22. Howard Cosell. Believing that having a lawyer for a son would make his parents proud, Cosell enrolled in the NYU School of Law and started practicing in Manhattan after WWII. His clients included Willie Mays and the New York Little League. He organized a radio show to help promote the latter and ended up being a natural at interviewing. He quit his law practice in 1956 to do sports reporting for ABC.
23. Steve Young. Here’s something most of us will never do: win a Super Bowl and complete a law degree in the same year. San Francisco 49er Steve Young managed to check both of those things off of his bucket list in 1994. Though he retired from career #1 in 1999, Young isn’t making use of his J.D. just yet. In fact, he pokes fun at lawyers in this 2011 spot for BYU.
24. Dick Button. After winning gold medals at the ‘48 and ‘52 Winter Olympics, the American figure skater decided to see how he would fare at Harvard Law School. Turns out he was pretty good at that, too: he graduated in 1955 and even skated with the Ice Capades when he was on break from school.
25. Tony La Russa. After bouncing from baseball team to baseball team - mostly in the minors - Tony La Russa figured he’d probably better have a backup plan and graduated from the Florida State University College of Law in 1978. He was offered a position coaching the White Sox farm team right around the same time. “I decided I’d rather ride the buses in the minor leagues than practice law for a living,” he later said. La Russa was called up to manage in the majors shortly thereafter.
26. David Stern. The commissioner of the NBA went to Columbia Law School and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1966. During his early law career, he worked with a firm that represented the NBA. He signed on as the NBA’s general counsel in 1978 and his career grew from there. This David Stern is not to be confused with Florida lawyer and “Foreclosure King” David Stern, by the way.
27. Francis Scott Key. The Star-Spangled Banner writer was a lawyer before he wrote the national anthem in 1814, and he continued to be a lawyer afterward. In fact, he represented Sam Houston when he was put on trial for assaulting a Congressman in 1832, and served as the District Attorney of the United States.
28. Andrea Bocelli. To earn money while studying law at the University of Pisa, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli started singing at Italian piano bars. It worked - he graduated in the mid-80s and practiced law for a year before realizing that his heart belonged to music and his voice belonged to the world. “I knew my voice was special,” he said. “I came to believe that if you have a gift, you have an obligation to share it with others. It's as simple as that.”
29. Julio Iglesias. Had the famous crooner not been in a car accident, he might never have pursued a singing career. Iglesias was a law student in Spain in 1963 when a collision left him paralyzed. He taught himself guitar during the three-year recovery process and ended up discovering a natural talent for music. Iglesias eventually completed his law degree in 2001.
30. Will Shortz. The puzzlemaster could have been a lawyer - he got his JD from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1977, but passed up the bar to get the world’s only degree in enigmatology instead. Despite eschewing the bar, Shortz believes his schooling was helpful. “Law is great training for the mind for almost any career. It was good for me because the thinking skills you get from law school are important in puzzle-solving and puzzle-making.”
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Lots of U.S. Presidents were lawyers, too. How about you guys? Anyone with a law degree thriving in another field?