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Famous former legal professionals and their path away from the law

barack obama was an attorney before becoming a politician

For many people, becoming a lawyer is a dream come true. Whether they’re attracted to the money, the power, or the ability to impact and protect justice, there are lawyers out there who can practice law for decades without giving it a second thought.

For some, however, lawyering is a stepping stone to something else. And why not? Law school provides an unparalleled education that translates to almost any other profession you can think of. Consequently, a fair number of lawyers try something else, and a few of them even become famous at it.

Many of the people who have transitioned away from the legal world are creatives – actors, writers, and the like. Others find success becoming politicians or pundits.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most well-known former legal professionals just in case you need inspiration…or a little distraction from your day.

Actors with legal degrees

When you think about it, lawyering and acting go hand-in-hand, especially for trial lawyers. You may be surprised, however, to find how many famous actors formerly had careers or serious studies in the law. Here are some of our favorites:

Rebel Wilson

This famous Australian funny-woman went all the way through law school before deciding lawyering was not for her. Though a reportedly brilliant student, she never actually practiced law. When asked why, Ms. Wilson claims that while suffering a case of malaria in Africa, she hallucinated about winning an Oscar. The rest, as they say, is history.

Gemma Chan

Today’s movie audiences know Gemma Chan from her brilliant performance in Crazy Rich Asians. What most people don’t know, however, is that prior to becoming an actor, she received a law degree from Oxford University. Luckily, that fancy education hasn’t gone to waste. Ms. Chan swears that her legal education actually helps her to memorize scripts.

Gerard Butler

Gerard Butler has some 70 movie credits to his name, including popular films like P.S. I Love You. Prior to becoming an actor, Butler studied law in his native country of Scotland. Practicing law didn’t sit well with him, though. Years later, he told Stephen Colbert he missed so much work during his training years that he was eventually fired – a fact he does not regret.

Writers who used to be lawyers

The list of lawyers-turned-writers is almost too vast to handle in one article (especially if you include freelance writers like me). The biggest names are “thrilling” to talk about.

John Grisham

John Grisham broke onto the scene with his thrilling novel-turned-movie, The Firm. Since then, he has gone on to write dozens of legal thrillers, and Hollywood’s interest in his stories has not slowed down. Interestingly, Grisham never set out to be a writer. As he explains it, “I seriously doubt I would ever have written the first story had I not been a lawyer. I never dreamed of being a writer. I wrote only after witnessing a trial.”

Scott Turow

If you ever dreamed of going to law school, chances are you know the name Scott Turow. Turow wrote the timeless classic One L, which gave such a frightening portrayal of the first year of law school that it turned more than one would-be lawyer to another field. Subsequently, Turow wrote several legal thrillers including two that became blockbuster movies, Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof.

The good news is, there is a bit of a “club” when it comes to lawyers who have left practice to pursue writing. In fact, many former lawyers are more than happy to give advice on how to leave the law and pursue a writing career.

Politicians with legal backgrounds

Legal professionals make natural politicians. After all, lawyers study the law while politicians, in large part, are responsible for making or enforcing laws. The best of the best tend to gravitate toward unprecedented leadership. Consider these examples:

Barack Obama

America’s 44th President was a stand-out student at Harvard law school and practiced law with some of Chicago’s top firms before beginning his life in politics. As an aside, President Obama met his wife Michelle when she acted as his supervisor as he interned at Chicago’s Sidley & Austin.

Kamala Harris

Madame Vice President started her legal career as a prosecutor in Oakland, California. From there, Kamala Harris famously went on to hold positions as the elected District Attorney of San Francisco and the Attorney General for the State of California before bursting onto the national political scene. That seems to have worked out well for her.

Pundits who used to work in law

For every lawyer-turned-politician, there are probably 16 lawyers-turned-pundits criticizing them. The big names are easily recognizable, so let’s talk about a couple of them.

Nancy Grace

Who doesn’t love (or love to hate) the ever-indignant Nancy Grace? While she’s now a staple of courtroom reality tv, she once had a thriving career as a prosecutor in Fulton County, Georgia (best known for holding the city of Atlanta) before gracing the small screen. Interestingly, Jones never planned to become a lawyer. In fact, it wasn’t until her fiancé was shot that Grace decided to pursue a career in criminal justice.

Geraldo Rivera

Geraldo’s on-screen tv persona has been nothing if not controversial. For years, he hosted a tabloid talk show that bore his name. More recently, he has been a political pundit on Fox News. Before all that, however, Mr. Rivera was a stand-out law student at Brooklyn Law School and worked as a community activist after graduation.

While Grace and Rivera are some of the bigger names in the industry, there are just as many small-market lawyers who work as pundits as a side hustle.

The good news for these lawyers is they can maintain their legal practice and use the on-camera time for things like branding and business development. That’s something to think about if you enjoy the legal profession but are still yearning for your 15 minutes of fame.

Other career paths for former legal professionals

The truth is, you don’t have to be famous to enjoy a second career following the law. Practicing law prepares you for all kinds of other careers. Consider these options for example:

Former real estate lawyers make great real estate agents and brokers.

Former corporate lawyers make great corporate executives.

Former trial attorneys make great marketing executives, writers, or tv producers. Trial attorneys are good at anything that requires story-telling, for the most part.

Anyone with a professional legal background can excel in things like investigations, police work, or compliance work.

Former legal administrators can make great emergency dispatchers because they are well-versed in working under stressful conditions.

The ultimate point is that legal training is an excellent background for all sorts of secondary careers, including those that will make you famous. The skills required of legal professionals are valuable just about anywhere. So, if you’re one of those people sitting at your desk dreaming about what might be…why not do your research and take the leap?

Author

  • Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.