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Superman – one of our great comic book heroes – turned 78 last week. Superman’s greatness as an icon is set in stone. For other comic book heroes – I’m looking at you Plastic Man / Ant Man – greatness is iffy.
It’s the same for lawyers. Many good lawyers do heroic work, but on a higher level, there are superhero lawyers, those who change the world and are long remembered for it. These are our legal legends, people like Clarence Darrow, Thurgood Marshall, Bella Abzug and Robert Kennedy.
But after 1968 (RFK’s assassination), the legends seem to thin out. In my time, I’m hard pressed to dole out legend-status … you know, the lawyer who inspires with a legal fight, who ushers in a culture shift, who speaks in truisms.
Of course, legends often need the lens of time, i.e., proof by the ages. As the late actor Christopher Lee said:
To be a legend, you've either got to be dead or excessively old!
This is more so in the law, where legal battles can be politically divisive and legal judgments upset social norms. Legal battles rally rival teams, each pointing fingers at the other, each trumpeting Twain’s old barb:
Principles is another name for prejudices.
Like sports, the law is adversarial. Unlike sports, legal wins and losses are sweeping, enduring, and impactful to rights, beliefs, majorities, minorities, etc. To be on the winning side incurs the wrath of many Americans. To be on the losing side (equally) incurs the wrath of many Americans. Stuck in the middle, often for the long, long haul, are the judges and the lawyers.
Unable to see the future, tomorrow’s legal legends depend on today’s guesswork. But as demonstrated by the denigration vs. celebration of the late Justice Scalia, early guesses suffer from still-raw feelings and dogmatic differences.
Still, we can guess, tempered by the fact that a legal “legend” isn’t necessarily everyone’s Superman. A legend, without imperfections, controversies and enemies, is merely a myth. As Robert Evans so artfully noted:
There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.
Or more simply put:
The very ink in which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.
- Mark Twain
12 Legal Legend Nominees