9 Famous and Influential People Who Have Degrees in Law

A degree in Law can take you to some strange and exciting places.

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And there’s nothing that demonstrates that better than our list of the famous and influential people who studied Law at university. From politicians to comedians, it’s easy to see the diversity of career paths that people found from Law, and the variety of options that this degree leaves open to you; it isn’t just a choice between becoming a solicitor or a barrister at the end of your years of study.
In this article we take a look at 9 famous and influential people from a wide range of backgrounds and in a wide variety of careers, and see how their Law degrees helped them succeed.

1. John Cleese

Studied: Law at Downing College, University of Cambridge

Comedian John Cleese is probably best known as one of the six members of the comedy group Monty Python, though his role as co-writer and star of the sitcom Fawlty Towers probably comes a close second. Cleese first became involved in comedy at university, when he joined Cambridge’s famous Footlights amateur dramatic club (other well-known Footlights alumni include Douglas Adams, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, and Sue Perkins). Through Footlights, he met fellow Python Graham Chapman, and the rest is history.

Cleese in 2008
Cleese in 2008.

Cleese’s choice of university seems to have made more of a difference to his career path than his choice of degree (though given his way with words, in another life he might also have made a very fine barrister). All the same, his background in Law seems to have contributed to other decisions. For instance, Cleese is a keen supporter of the human rights organisation Amnesty International, and in 1976 he co-founded the Secret Policeman’s Ball, a series of benefit shows to raise money for the work of Amnesty International. The Secret Policeman’s Ball’s impact has been far-reaching; not only did it increase the popularity of benefit shows as a means of raising money, but also encouraged many popular entertainers to become dedicated supporters of Amnesty International.

2. Henri Matisse

Studied: Law at the University of Paris

Olga Meerson's portrait of Matisse.
Olga Meerson’s portrait of Matisse.

It’s hard to argue that Matisse’s Law degree served him as an artist, except perhaps in that it allowed him to work as a court administrator for a little while before he became an artist. And Matisse’s story, cheeringly, is not an example of someone who was desperate to become an artist but initially chose Law in order to be able to afford food; instead, he discovered “a kind of paradise” in his own words when his mother brought him art supplies while he was recovering from appendicitis, only after he had completed his Law degree.
Following this epiphany, he returned to Paris, but this time to study art, and became established as a painter. Just seven years after he graduated in Law, in 1896, two of his paintings in an exhibition of five were bought by the state. His ultimate career as an artist lasted more than fifty years until his death in 1954.

3. Barack Obama

Studied: Political Science at Columbia University, then Law at Harvard Law School

Obama, pictured with Michelle, Malia, and Sasha.
Obama, pictured with Michelle, Malia, and Sasha.

Barack Obama, not only studied Law as a postgraduate but went on to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years until 2004, while also working as a civil rights attorney. Obama’s election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review lead him to appear in the national press for the first time and from there he wrote his autobiography, Dreams from My Father.
Obama’s experience of working as a community organiser, then a law professor and civil rights attorney, seems like the perfect apprenticeship for politics. Being a community organiser is about politics at its most fundamental grassroots level: engaging people about what could be improved in their community and getting it changed, which can involve mobilising people who previously didn’t believe change to be achievable. Working in law is the reverse side of the political coin, involving using existing structures to bring about change. A command of both grassroots activism and the best use of existing power structures is arguably what it takes to be a successful politician; while others might use experience of the business world or work for other politicians for the latter, Obama chose Law, and seems to have served him well.

4. Hillary Clinton

Studied: Political Science at Wellesley College, then Law at Yale Law School

Both Obama and Clinton attended Harvard's prestigious Law School.
Both Obama and Clinton attended Harvard’s prestigious Law School.

Hillary Clinton (betting odds currently 1/3 for next US President, with her nearest rival Donald Trump trailing at 9/2) has been as much of a trailblazer as Barack Obama. While he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, she became the first female chair of the Legal Services Corporation in 1978. A year later, she became the first female partner at Rose Law Firm, the third oldest law firm in the USA. In 2000, she became the first female senator from New York.
A thread running through both Clinton and Obama’s stories is the use of law to help people in need. In Obama’s case, that was about using the power of the law to help people access their civil rights; in Clinton’s case, that was about child advocacy, particularly relating to education provision for children with disabilities. This kind of positive demonstration of the power of the law and of government to be a force for good is clearly an asset for anyone thinking of becoming a politician.

5. Washington Irving

Studied: Law with Judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman, in New York

Irving successfully protected his work from pirates.
Irving successfully protected his work from pirates.

The writer Washington Irving is probably now best known for his short stories ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’. He was a keen writer from an early age, but wasn’t much of a student. Studying law in the early 19th century USA didn’t necessarily require attending a university: Irving studied privately with Judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman, a lawyer and politician. He barely passed the bar in 1806, but apparently Hoffman didn’t hold it against him, as Irving became engaged to Hoffman’s daughter a couple of years later (though she died before the marriage could take place). From 1809 onwards, Irving tried to make a living through writing, rather than through Law.
His training in Law proved not to be entirely useless to him, however. There was no international copyright law at the time, and like many writers Irving lost sales through pirated versions of his books. In a bid to combat the problem, Irving took to publishing in the USA and the UK simultaneously, so that he would own the copyright to his works in both countries before pirates could get the chance to steal them.

6. Mahatma Gandhi

Studied: Law at University College, London

Gandhi's legacy still looms large, in India and beyond.
Gandhi’s legacy still looms large, in India and beyond.

We don’t usually think of Gandhi as a member of a privileged elite, but he came from a prominent family and his father was chief minister of a large city. He was a rebellious teenager, abandoning his studies at Bhavnagar College in Bombay in favour of studying in London, in spite of warnings that he would lose status by studying in England. Following this act of defiance, he was declared an outcast by elders of the Modh Bania community to which his family belonged.
After being called to the bar in London, Gandhi returned to India, where he struggled to find work, so travelled to South Africa. There he spent 21 years, first working in law, then moving into politics as he became increasingly aware of the injustices in South African society. In 1915, he moved back to India, having learned the skills that would serve him well as a political leader there. From there he went on to lead the Indian National Congress, and, ultimately, gain India’s independence from Britain.

7. Nelson Mandela

Studied: Arts at the University of Fort Hare, then University of South Africa, then Law at the University of Witwatersrand
At the age of 16, Nelson Mandela intended to become a privy councillor for the Thembu royal house. His first attempt to gain a degree, at the University of Fort Hare, ended in failure when he was suspended for organising a boycott against the quality of food. But when a friend found him a job as an articled clerk in a law firm, Mandela became connected to a hive of political activity by attending Communist talks and parties that he was invited to by his colleagues. After getting his BA, Mandela realised that becoming a privy councillor was not right for him, and then instead he wanted to become involved in politics via Law.

Mandela statue in Pretoria, South Africa.
Mandela statue in Pretoria, South Africa.

Mandela became the only native African student at the University of Witwatersrand, where he joined the African National Congress. He became so committed to politics that his studies were neglected, and he failed his final year three times before he ultimately received his degree at the age of 31. He went on to open the only African-run law firm in the country, though their business struggled through conflict with the authorities. As his involvement in resistance to apartheid increased, he was arrested several times, and ultimately he was imprisoned for life for conspiracy to overthrow the state. An international campaign called for his release, and after being freed in 1990, he went on to become South Africa’s first black president in 1994.

8. Fidel Castro

Studied: Law at the University of Havana
Like Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro became involved in politics while studying Law – but it took him in a somewhat different direction. At university, Castro became involved in violent activism, received death threats, and took to carrying a gun. He was particularly critical of the corruption and violence associated with Ramón Grau, then President of Cuba. Over time his politics moved from opposing US imperialism and corruption, towards condemnation of social and economic inequality. By 1949, he had discovered Marxism, and begun to believe that Cuba’s problems could only be solved through revolution. By 1952, he had moved away from his struggling career in Law and sought election to congress, but then a military dictator, Batista, seized power, and Castro lost faith in democracy altogether.

Castro in 1977.
Castro in 1977.

In 1953, Castro led an attack on a military garrison, which failed and resulted in first his imprisonment, then his exile to Mexico. In 1956, he returned to Cuba with 80 men, was ambushed, and retreated into the mountains to regroup. Between 1956 and 1959 his forces gathered strength and launched a campaign of guerilla warfare, and from 1956 until 2008, Castro governed Cuba as a one-party Communist state until ill health forced him to abdicate in favour of his brother Raúl Castro, who remains in power today while Fidel Castro continues to exercise influence from retirement.

9. Tony Blair

Studied: Jurisprudence at St John’s College, University of Oxford

Law and politics have long gone hand in hand.
Law and politics have long gone hand in hand.

Tony Blair was British prime minister from 1997 to 2007. Law was his second choice of career; he initially tried to become a rock music promoter, and after abandoning this to go to university, joined a band there. One of his fellow band members, Mark Ellen, did go on to make his career in the music industry. Blair, however, became a barrister instead, joining the Labour Party shortly after graduating from Oxford. He sought selection as a Prospective Party Candidate several times, losing in the safe Conservative seat of Beaconsfield, and then being selected for, and winning, the safe Labour seat of Sedgefield.
From there, his political career went from strength to strength. He became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, and won a landslide victory to become Prime Minister in 1997, giving Labour their largest ever parliamentary majority. He won two subsequent elections before standing down, having achieved success in areas such as the Northern Irish peace process (which lead Queen’s University Belfast to award him an honorary doctorate in Law) and the creation of a National Minimum Wage, but with a reputation that would forever be tarnished by his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Image credits: courtroomjohn cleese; matisse; harvard law school; obama family; book covers ; gandhi; mandela; castro; blair