Great lawyers are not merely eloquent speakers or those who risk personal safety for a case, but rather custodians of the rule of law who are willing to put their careers on the line, Floyd Abrams LAW ’60 argued Thursday.

Before an audience of about 30, Abrams, an expert in freedom of speech and press issues and a visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School, insisted that more recognition should be given to lawyers who have risked their careers, futures and ambitions while trying to adhere to the letter of the law. At a talk hosted by law school’s Law and Media Program, Abrams looked back on the careers of American figures such as John Adams and William Seward, whom he held up as examples of lawyers who had stood up for what they believed in.

While he was at Yale, Abrams said, he was disturbed to discover that though he and his classmates learned a lot about the law, they never learned about great lawyers.

“The only lawyers that we heard about really were either ancient graduates who happened to be visiting Yale,” Abrams said. “They were either bigoted, stupid or both and said outrageous things to the students while everyone laughed.”

Abrams first discussed the career of U.S. President John Adams, who he said defended the British in court after the Boston Massacre despite the fact that he was risking his career and dreams and the lives of his wife and children were being threatened.

“He is was one of the most insecure, vain, and yet honorable, good and effective persons to have served as president,” Abrams said.

James Comey, the assistant attorney general under former President George W. Bush ’68, had to take an equally difficult stance when Bush asked Comey to authorize his wiretapping program, and Comey refused. Like Adams, Comey feared for the personal safety of his and his family’s lives, Abrams said.

The ethical code for lawyers when Abrams took the bar exam 50 years ago was significantly less strict than it is today, Abrams said. He added that he was coached to say reflexively “I wouldn’t do it” when asked “the ethics question” on the exam.

Joshua Geltzer LAW ’11 said the lack of a significant lawyer presence within the law school is still a problem, though an increased emphasis on clinical work has become a source of contact between students and practicing lawyers.

Anjali Dalal LAW ’10 said Abram’s decision not to discuss cases involving First Amendment issues — his area of expertise — indicated his interest in the field of law as a whole.

In addition to being a visiting professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Abrams is a partner in the law firm Cahill, Gordon & Reindel.