Upon entering The New York Law Institute’s offices at 120 Broadway, visitors may notice the foyer area medallions depicting two men in profile……

Who are these dudes, anyway?

Before the advent of the “Cravath system” , as described in John Oller‘s history White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business—and the American Century, the 19th Century was an age of true celebrity lawyers….

And there were no bigger celebrity lawyers — or legal rivals – than Charles O’Conor and William M. Evarts…..

Evarts & O’Conor’s first ‘match-up’ was in 1855 slavery case Lemmon followed by the politically charged 1857 Metropolitan Police Court corruption case, Parish will’s endless litigation in 1862, Jefferson Davis Secession Trial and finally the Disputed Election of 1876.

The two men were opposites in many ways…

Charles O’Conor was the self-educated son of Irish immigrants, a ‘straight out’ Democrat Presidential candidate, pro-slavery, Anti-Tammany, and an often contentious figure. O’Conor became a celebrity lawyer with his representation of wife Catherine in the Forrest Divorce case.

William M. Evarts , educated at both Yale and Harvard, was the grandson of Declaration of Independence signatory Roger Sherman. Dedicated to the newly formed Republican party, Evarts successfully defended Andrew Johnson in our country’s first impeachment trial and then served as his Attorney General. Evarts would go on to serve as Hayes’ Secretary of State and as NY Senator in the late 1880s.

While Evarts’ most consequential case was the post-civil war Alabama arbitration, he too caught the public’s imagination with a divorce scandal: Evarts provided defense counsel to Reverend Beecher .

O’Conor was President of The New York Law Institute in 1869, lent financial assistance to NYLI throughout his life and in death bequeathed 100 volumes to its Library.

Evarts also served as a NYLI President and was founder and first President of the Association of the Bar of the City of N.Y. .

Banquets were commonplace in the 19th Century, and Charles O’Conor was the ’emcee’ for Evarts and gave this tribute to his legal rival:

Evarts would similarly acknowledge respect for his greatest legal rival stating in a speech upon O’Conor’s death

Political cartoonists would give these two prominent lawyers a different sort of tribute – carticatures that depicted Evarts as “Senator Windbag” and O’Conor as an over-reaching primate !

Next time you visit The New York Law Institute, take a look at the two dudes in the foyer, and remember their impressive careers and the age of celebrity lawyers….. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi !