This is not another article about attorneys wanting a second career. “Recovering lawyer” is a phrase that is thrown around way too often, and this article isn’t about how to escape from a law practice. But, if you find yourself daydreaming about moving on from a legal career, here are some attorneys who found serious fame in a way unrelated to their law degree.
Andrea Bocelli has sold over five million albums worldwide, has been nominated for an Oscar (Best Original Song from Quest for Camelot) and won a Golden Globe. He was also one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 1998. He’s been blind since the age of 12, but practiced for a year in Italy as a court-appointed lawyer, before soaring to success in the classical music world. Proof of fame: giving Elmo a lullaby.
If songwriting is more up your alley, you can’t have a much more lasting impression in the United States than Francis Scott Key. He wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” after watching the British bomb Fort McHenry in 1814. Over 100 years later, it became the national anthem. Proof of fame: any American sporting event.
Double-digit Emmy Award-winning writer David E. Kelly has had massive success with multiple different television shows. He was the creative force behind TV shows like Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Boston Legal and has actually had a series broadcast on all the major networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. His latest, Goliath, which appears on Amazon, won a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama for Billy Bob Thornton. Proof of fame: here’s one of his characters on the cover of Time.
There are not many authors have had more commercial success than John Grisham, whose books, including his most successful, The Firm, have sold over 275 million copies worldwide. Nine of his books have been turned into major motion pictures.
Other writers with prior legal careers include Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent), Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) and arguably the most famous former lawyer turned writer; Franz Kafka. Proof of fame: The term ‘Kafkaesque.’ It’s quite possibly the most famous ‘esque’ ever.
Megyn Kelly had started out in law but decided to pursue a career in TV news. From 2004 to 2017, she worked for Fox News, but it was her clashes with Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign/debates where her fame soared to new levels. She recently jumped networks and will now appear on MSNBC. Proof of fame: Not too many lawyers have been featured on the cover of Vanity Fair.
Judge Judy Sheindlin is one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. According to a 2013 report, she earns roughly $47 million per year for the incredibly highly-rated syndicated Judge Judy. It’s hard to overstate the impact that her show has had on the perception of the American legal system. Proof of fame: Reader’s Digest ranked her 28th in a poll of the Most Trusted People in America a few years ago. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the highest ranking actual judge, coming in at 36th.
A Brooklyn Law School graduate, Geraldo Rivera went on to a unique career on television. He began as a serious reporter, winning an early Peabody Award. He has appeared on ABC’s 20/20 and Nightline, had a daytime television show and famously hosted the ill-fated television live-special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, where 30 million viewers watched Rivera uncover pretty much nothing over the course of a live two-hour show. Since 2001, he has been associated most notably with Fox News. Proof of fame: Geraldo has hit the sort-of-famous-second-act-jackpot twice, appearing both on Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars (Lawyerist can’t recommend watching this clip — it is very difficult to put in a safe mental compartment.)
“Springeresque” doesn’t have the same cachet as “Kafkaesque” but if you use the word, most people know that you’re referring to Jerry Springer’s memorable talk show. The show, which debuted in the early 90s, featured frequent physical fights between family members, friends and especially ex-lovers. (If you’re too young to be familiar with the term, it’s not a compliment if someone refers to you as Springeresque.) Proof of fame: Springer appeared on an episode of the Simpsons.
Harvey Levin is the drink-holding face of TMZ along with his hosting duties at The People’s Court. He was also an attorney who got his first real taste of fame reporting on the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Proof of fame: A role in Sharknado 3.
Greta Van Susteren was another beneficiary of the lingering fame-effects of working on the O.J. Simpson trial. She has been on CNN and MSNBC but found her longest TV tenure with Fox News, where she hosted On the Record w/Greta Van Susteren for fourteen years. Proof of fame: she can pick whatever career highlight she wants, but it’s doubtful that anything would top an appearance on Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
Nancy Grace started out on TV working alongside Jonnie Cochran, another legal veteran who saw his celebrity status escalate following the O.J. Simpson trial. Grace went on to host her own shows, most notably on CNN’s Headline News (also called HLN). For several years, her highly-rated show featured her bombastic and confrontational approach to high-profile legal cases, like Casey Anthony’s high-profile case. Proof of fame: Funny or Die did a memorable spoof of her television approach.
David Stern served as the NBA commissioner for 30 years, overseeing massive growth in the league’s popularity. Proof of fame: Stern was the central figure of one of the all-time great conspiracy theories in sports: The Frozen Envelope.
Few sportscasters in television history had the lasting impact of Howard Cosell. Boxing and the Olympics helped build his career, but with Monday Night Football Cosell blossomed into a household name. He also was the man who basically announced the death of John Lennon to the world during a Monday Night Football broadcast. Cosell went on to inexplicably host the well-beneath-his-skills Battle of the Network Stars in the 1970s and 80s. If you are too young to remember this show, it’s as terribly addicting as it sounds. Network TV stars compete in sports. Some are good, some…well, they’re actors. Here’s a fun clip of the always-contentious tug of war. At one point, Cosell utters these words: “Ed Asner…the body prostrate…” Proof of fame: Cosell appeared in three Woody Allen movies.
Also of note are two pro football players who got their law degrees while playing in the NFL. Steve Young found himself bored backing up Joe Montana of the San Fransisco 49ers and decided to start going to law school during winter semesters. In 1994, he both won the Super Bowl (where he was the MVP) and graduated from BYU’s law school. Alan Page graduated from law school in 1978, while he was still playing for the Minnesota Vikings. How good was Page as a player? He was one of only two players that ever earned a league MVP award while playing defense. In 1992, he was elected to Minnesota’s Supreme Court, where he served until his retirement in 2015. Both Page and Young have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Is poker a sport? Tough call, but it is on ESPN regularly. Tune into any of the poker tournaments on TV and there’s a decent chance you’ll see a lawyer or former lawyer sitting at the final table. Two of the most successful are Greg Raymer, winner of the 2004 World Series of Poker and poker pro Vanessa Selbst. Combined, the two of them have won over seventeen million dollars in career tournament winnings, which is definitely a good deal more than they’d ever have made as lawyers.
Is golf a sport? Sure, it’s not as physically demanding as soccer or football, but unlike poker, at least there is a ball. Undoubtedly, the most accomplished athlete/lawyer is Bobby Jones. He was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1928 and won golf’s Grand Slam—the four biggest tournaments of the year—in 1930. He then went on to help design Augusta National Golf Club. Proof of fame: Jones got a ticker-tape parade in New York City after winning the British Open in 1926. How many other lawyers have had a ticker-tape parade in New York City?
Tony LaRussa was a pro baseball player who decided to get a law degree when his playing days ended. After graduating from Florida State University, he got offered a minor league coaching position. Since then, he has gone on to coach teams to World Series victories in both leagues (Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals). He’s only the second coach to accomplish this lofty goal in his Hall of Fame career. He ranks third all-time in most victories as a Major League manager.
Most people are aware that a lot of past U.S. Presidents were lawyers. 25 practiced law before taking our highest office. If your aspirations are slightly lower (what six-year-old aspires to be Vice-President?), 28 U.S. Vice Presidents practiced law.
Other former lawyers that went on to political importance: Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi.
So there you have it. Riches and fame could all be yours, but maybe only if you stop practicing law first.