The greatest ever lawyer? It’s horses for courses

The greatest ever lawyer? It’s horses for courses.

It’s a contentious question. So out of curiosity, I searched ‘greatest ever lawyer’ and hit return. Up they came. A photo montage of Google’s greatest in order of popularity and significance as determined by complex, opaque algorithms: Joe Jamail, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Jo White, David Boies, Clarence Darrow, Johnnie Cochran. And so on.

No surprise that all the top names are American, and, with the exception of Lincoln, forged their reputations in the twentieth century – although Jamail, White and Boies continued into the twenty-first. Of the top thirty listed lawyers, most are US litigators who found their fame as courtroom stars, interspersed with a handful of others.

Regrettably, they are all men save for Mary Jo White, former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and now the Senior Chair at Debevoise & Plimpton. This gender bias is a reflection of history: the future will undoubtedly be very different as more great women lawyers emerge in ever larger numbers.     

So what makes a great lawyer as opposed to a really good one? Having met and interviewed a fair number of those whom are commonly regarded as great in their field, they vary enormously, although a few characteristics are common to all.  

In my early twenties, I heard Jamail speak when the American Bar Association visited London some years ago. Beneath his Texan drawl lay a manifestly good mind which fused forensic thinking with carefully crafted charisma. The combination took him a very long way: reputed to be America’s wealthiest practising attorney, the King of Torts was a billionaire. “I was taught that a lawyer is the custodian of the community’s legal and ethical sense, so we should act like it,” he said, after railing against greedy lawyers who entered the profession for money and cared nothing for their clients. 

Among the city’s most prominent trial lawyers, such as the late Tom Barr at Cravath, the prevailing view was that Jamail would never come to New York to address a local jury. “It’s horses for courses,” Barr told me. Scrolling through Google’s legal gallery, he too makes his entry in the top tier ahead of more obviously famous names, such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Less showy and more obviously cerebral, Barr was a man of patience and genuine depth, as evidenced by his thoughtful interview answers. How else could someone sustain the momentum in a lawsuit as Kafkaesque as US v IBM, the anti-trust case in which he was involved for 13 years.    

A very different style emerges from David Boies, infused with mid-Western charm and astute self-deprecation. When I arrived at his Cravath office, late and in a sweat, having run several blocks in the blazing heat of midsummer Manhattan, he took one look at me and said: “Just wait there!” A few minutes later, he returned carrying a large tray on which there was a bucketful of ice, assorted soft drinks and two glasses. Rarely have I been more impressed, or more grateful.

A dyslexic, raised in the farming community of Sycamore, Illinois, Boies was genial, gregarious and garrulous – albeit in a controlled lawyerly fashion. And he was very sharp: in the very best sense of the word. Armed with a fund of legal anecdotes, he smiled as he spoke, proving why he became a regular on the Manhattan social circuit. Boies was also known for being a risk taker – a lover of Las Vegas. After departing from Cravath, he set up his own, now highly successful litigation firm, Boies Schiller & Flexner. The gamble more than paid off.

Two men not on Google’s shortlist, but whose talent made them giants in the New York world of corporate deals, were Joe Flom and Marty Lipton. I was fortunate to spend time with both on successive days. Flom was the man who made Skadden and Lipton did the same for Wachtell Lipton. Their styles contrasted. Flom was professorial, instructing me on the history of M&A over the course of a century – less an interview and more of an education. Equally generous with his time, Marty Lipton’s economy of language showed an absolute mastery of his subject. No word was wasted – each had some value. Now in his mid-eighties, he is still very much on the case.

Unlike the US, where every lawyer has rights of audience for trial and appellate work, the English legal profession remains largely divided. Barristers still dominate the courtroom. Five English barrister interviewees stand out as obviously great: Clare Montgomery QC, Lord Grabiner QC, Lord Sumption, Lord Pannick QC and Lord Denning. When I first met Denning, he was eighty-one. His career at the Bar ended in 1944 and he had been a judge for 36 years. As Master of the Rolls for two decades, he was a living legend among lawyers and the wider public.   

At nineteen, I was far too young to appreciate Denning’s legal brain. It was his voice and eyes that made the deepest impression. Soft rural inflection contrasted with the fierce intelligence of his penetrating gaze, which made him appear much younger than his elderly frame and walking stick would suggest. He asked questions and listened keenly to my answers, fumbling though they must have been. I had met several judges before, but none quite like this.

Two decades later, I wrote separate profiles of Montgomery, Grabiner, Sumption and Pannick for the Times. The combined weight of their intellects justified their formidable reputations. Individually, they were quite distinct.

Having competed as a junior national fencer, Montgomery told me that she “desperately wanted to win”. It proved invaluable training for the cut and thrust of the courtroom. “I find the law terribly dull,” she added “unless it has a human content.” Only the 60th woman QC ever to be appointed, Montgomery claimed that there were just five cases in her career where her input may have made a difference to the outcome. Naturally modest, but extremely tenacious, she exemplifies the cautious understatement of a great lawyer who does not need to sing their own praises. Others do it for her. 

A commanding presence inside and outside the courtroom, Grabiner was direct and unpretentious in interview, giving the immediate sense of someone who did not suffer fools gladly. A big, expansive man, the residue of an East London accent punctuates the narrative of his conversation: fast, fluent and economical, it somehow serves to add even greater substance to his answers.

Having interviewed Lord Sumption several times – both before and after his appointment to the Supreme Court – I confess that he is my favourite interviewee. Unfailingly courteous, he deploys the most eloquent language I have encountered in any lawyer. In summary, he gives good copy. Sumption’s fabulous facility with words becomes even more apparent when his answers are fully transcribed to reveal thoughtfully paragraphed arguments, complete with parenthetical clauses – all without error, repetition or superfluous comment.    

Pannick arguably goes one better, anticipating each question as if he has already read it in advance. There is a measure of studied impatience in his answers, not uncommon to great advocates, who regard journalists like errant judges interrupting at the wrong moment as they are in full flow. He is a lawyer so certain of his own ability that he justifiably sees little room for self-doubt, given his capacity to deal with any question. Like all truly great advocates, he is one of a special breed. Ultimately, he cares most about doing his best for his clients.

So who is the greatest ever lawyer? Although Cicero might justifiably lay claim to the title – not least by virtue of his enduring reputation – no such person exists. Instead, there have been many great lawyers throughout the ages. Set a cut above their peers, they do things that others can only aspire to: cutting through complex legal problems in a nanosecond. Such talent is innate. Beyond intellect and industry, great lawyers use language and logic to their fullest extent. Their gifts are rare, although not unique. But when you are lucky enough to meet one, you soon know.


Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator. www.dominiccarman.com