Because of the relative paucity of great works of American legal history (aside from Supreme Court history, long the focus of American legal historians, to the detriment of other equally significant areas of legal history scholarship), generations of lawyers have learned their legal history by reading biographies of great judges and lawyers. Biography can also play an important role in the formation of professional values by providing role models - and models of what to avoid.
One good place to start is with a biography of Thurgood Marshall, arguably America’s single most influential lawyer, who fought racial discrimination in the South as head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, argued and won Brown v. Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court, and then served on the Court for several tumultuous decades. The definitive biography of Marshall has not yet been written. Two useful and interesting works, both valuable, are Carl T. Rowan’s Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall (1993) and Juan Williams’ Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (1998).
Abraham Lincoln was also shaped profoundly by his legal education and practice. The standard one volume biography is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln (1995), but law students and lawyers may also enjoy Benjamin P. Thomas’ Abraham Lincoln (1952), which offers a very sophisticated understanding of the impact of law on Lincoln’s approach to slavery and preservation of the Union, and John J. Duff’s A. Lincoln, Prairie Lawyer (1960), which focuses exclusively, and in great detail, on Lincoln’s legal education and practice prior to becoming President.
Because women were long prevented from participating in the legal system in any meaningful fashion, there are far too few biographies of excellent women lawyers. To compound this problem, many of the first generation of powerful women lawyers are still practicing and thus have not yet received serious biographical treatment. For example, we still lack first-rate biographies of Justices Sandra O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. One useful corrective is Emily Couric’s Women Lawyers: Perspectives on Success (1984), which provides autobiographical profiles of successful women lawyers working in a variety of professional settings. One might also read some of the excellent autobiographies of women attorneys, such as legal pioneer Constance Baker Motley’s Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography (1998) or Alice Vachss’ Sex Crimes (1993).