Lawyers are often characterised as money-grabbing parasites. As unfair as this might be, it is deeply rooted in the popular view of the profession. A quick search for ‘lawyer jokes’ is all you need to confirm this.
So you might expect the Forbes Rich List to be packed with lawyers. Can lawyers join the ranks of the super-rich? We look at the Top 6 Richest Lawyers of All Time and see just how wealthy they are and how they got there.
6 – Judith ‘Judge Judy’ Sheindlin – wealth: estimated between $290 and $350 million
Perhaps the most widely-recognised of the lawyers on this list, Judith Sheindlin has been hosting her TV show ‘Judge Judy’ since 1996.
She graduated from New York Law School in 1965, practising first as a corporate attorney before becoming a family court prosecutor in 1972. She was appointed to the bench in 1982. According to her bio on the Judge Judy website, she heard over 20,000 cases during her career as a family court judge.
Undoubtedly it is Sheindlin’s broadcasting career which has made her fortune, however. She receives a salary of $47 million a year for the show. Reportedly, this is because she refuses to enter into any kind of negotiation with CBS, the network which broadcasts the show. She is so confident in the value she brings that Sheindlin simply gives the CBS executives an envelope containing her demands.
5 – Bill Neukom – wealth: $850 million
Bill Neukom was once the principal lawyer at Microsoft, working for Bill Gates (who, incidentally, tops the current Forbes Rich List).
Neukom started working at Microsoft in 1978, when the company had only 12 employees. Much of his wealth came from his time at Microsoft, particularly when it became a public company. In the 25 years Neukom was with Microsoft, he saw it develop from humble beginnings into the global tech giant we know today.
He undoubtedly has an inspiring attitude to his vast wealth. In an interview he gave for the New York Times he said:
‘I believe I was overcompensated for my work […] I was in a fortunate position, but my worth to the company is not equal to the amount of money I received. I don’t see it as money I earned. I see myself as the steward of the money, and that is why I give much of it away.’
In 2006, Neukom founded the World Justice Project an organisation which ‘aims to promote the Rule of Law throughout the world’. He continues to act as CEO for the project, alongside philanthropic work for many other non-profit organisations.
His self-described ‘guilty pleasure’ is the San Francisco Giants baseball team, for whom he acted as CEO between 2008 and 2012.
4 – William Lerach – wealth: $900 million
‘The list of companies he sued reads like the Fortune 500’. These words go some way to acknowledging the ambition and tenacity of William Lerach. He took on many high-profile companies in huge class actions. His most famous case being that against Enron, in which he obtained a settlement of $7.12 billion (a record amount for private securities actions).
He has been nicknamed the ‘King of Torts’ and the ‘King of Pain’, the latter due to the legal torment he inflicted on those he pursued.
Lerach remains a divisive figure. Some see him as a folk hero, fighting corporate greed for small-time investors; others denounce some of the methods he used for his success.
In 2007, Lerach was imprisoned and disbarred in for lying under oath and paying off expert witnesses and plaintiffs.
3- Wichai Thongthan – wealth: $1.5 billion
Wichai Thongthan is the only lawyer who is currently on the Forbes Billionaire Rich List. A good portion of his wealth is from investments and he is perhaps more accurately described as a lawyer-turned-investor. The prime source of his wealth is from his stake in Thai hospital operator, Bangkok Duist Medical.
However, his work as a lawyer was the beginning of it all. Cash-strapped clients would sometimes use real estate to pay his fees and this gave him the means to begin making investments.
Even when some of his investments took off, Thongthan continued to practice as a lawyer. In 2001, he successfully represented former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, in an asset concealment case.
2 – Joe Jamail – wealth: (at its height) $1.7 billion
Joe Jamail was another lawyer who had been nicknamed the ‘King of Torts’. He specialised in personal injury cases, winning ‘more than 500 lawsuits and $13 billion in judgments and settlements for his clients’.
A former marine with a larger than life personality, Jamail was a formidable and flamboyant courtroom operator. Judges frequently criticised him for being rude and uncivil.
He made his fortune through contingency fees. In 1985, He successfully represented Pennzoil in an action against Texaco, securing a total award of almost $11 billion dollars. Jamail’s fees were £345 million.
He once said ‘And I’ll tell you what motivated me: competitiveness. I was betting on me. That’s what a contingent-fee lawyer does.’
Outside of the courtroom, he conducted many philanthropic projects with huge donations to the University of Texas and funding for a football stadium and skatepark.
He died at the age of 90 in December 2015.
1 – Richard Scruggs – wealth: (at its height) $1.7 billion
Richard Scruggs also made his fortune through class action lawsuits. In a similar way to Lerach, Scruggs also splits opinion. An undoubtedly gifted lawyer he has championed class actions which capture great public support – most notably actions against the tobacco and asbestos industries. A friend once said of him: ‘He’s very shrewd, very good at seeing a little bit into the future’ referring to his knack for identifying these causes and making money through litigating on them.
However, in 2008 he was indicted for judicial bribery and imprisoned. The indictment stated that the bribe was intended to persuade the judge to rule in favour of Scruggs’s firm, in a case which involved compensation for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In a separate incident, he was also convicted of trying to obtain a federal judicial seat through bribery.
Scruggs’s fortune at its height was widely-estimated to be worth $1.7 billion. However, Scruggs doesn’t feature on Forbes’ current rich list suggesting this figure has been reduced considerably.
To put things in some perspective, Bill Gates, who tops the world’s rich list has an estimated worth of $86 billion. That’s 57 times more than the only lawyer on the Rich List currently.
Clearly law can be a very lucrative profession, and there are lessons to be learned from all six of the lawyers featured on this list, but through law alone it seems unlikely that a lawyer can join the ranks of the mega-rich.