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From The CriticsWho wants to take advice from a stranger? Given the huge success of self-help and advice books, most Americans, apparently. Influenced by Rainer Maria Rilke's epistolary classic, Letters to a Young Poet, in which Rilke composed a sequence of remarkable letters of counsel to an aspiring writer, Basic Books has initiated a series titled "The Art of Mentoring," in which advice is tailored to specific fields and talents and dispensed by contemporary figures who have made an impression doing what they do best.
In its initial season, the series' publishers have contracted outspoken Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz for a book on being a lawyer and political provocateur Christopher Hitchens for a volume on being a contrarian. The advice offered in these two books is similar—be passionate and bold, listen to yourself, stand apart from others—but it's not really the advice that's compelling. Rather, it's learning more about what makes Dershowitz and Hitchens tick. After all, these engaging men have made their careers and earned their reputations by fervently resisting the status quo.
Dershowitz organizes his volume as a collection of thirty-six brief letters with clever titles like "Have a Good Enemies List," "Your Client Is Not Your Friend" and "Can a Lawyer Be a Good Person?" One of his central concerns is the destruction of myths about justice: "Absolutely no one ever wants justice. Everyone wants to win. The facade behind which the desire to win is hidden is called justice." Reassuring news for pre-law majors.
The line between confidentiality and public duty is also explored. Dershowitz compares lawyers to priests, whose "obligation ofconfidentiality" is even greater. Though a lawyer cannot disclose past crimes his client has committed, he can call the police if his client reveals that he will commit a future crime—something the priest cannot do. As a priest in one of Dershowitz's novels says, "Our job is to save souls, not lives."
As former counsel for O.J. Simpson and Leona Helmsley, Dershowitz often feels compelled to defend the ethics of defense attorneys. While he deserves credit for promoting civil rights protection, this book too often reads like an apologia. Further, his ego can irritate. He quotes comments of praise from admirers—a fan letter, a book review and a legal opinion are cited—and is continually telling readers what a great and talented guy he is. While he expresses disappointment upon discovering that most of his former heroes (Clarence Darrow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter) committed ethical violations, Dershowitz himself remains the sole legal figure whose record is spotless.