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Letters to a Young Lawyer

Letters to a Young Lawyer

4.7 3
by Alan M. Dershowitz

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As defender of both the righteous and the questionable, Alan Dershowitz has become perhaps the most famous and outspoken attorney in the land. Whether or not they agree with his legal tactics, most people would agree that he possesses a powerful and profound sense of justice. In this meditation on his profession, Dershowitz writes about life, law, and the


As defender of both the righteous and the questionable, Alan Dershowitz has become perhaps the most famous and outspoken attorney in the land. Whether or not they agree with his legal tactics, most people would agree that he possesses a powerful and profound sense of justice. In this meditation on his profession, Dershowitz writes about life, law, and the opportunities that young lawyers have to do good and do well at the same time.We live in an age of growing dissatisfaction with law as a career, which ironically comes at a time of unprecedented wealth for many lawyers. Dershowitz addresses this paradox, as well as the uncomfortable reality of working hard for clients who are often without many redeeming qualities. He writes about the lure of money, fame, and power, as well as about the seduction of success. In the process, he conveys some of the "tricks of the trade" that have helped him win cases and become successful at the art and practice of "lawyering."

Editorial Reviews

Who 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.
—James Schiff

Publishers Weekly
Dershowitz helps inaugurate a new series called the Art of Mentoring with this volume of advice and reflection on practicing law. Several unifying themes run throughout, most prominently the ethical traps for defense attorneys, prosecutors and even judges inherent in the practice of criminal law. Dershowitz alerts a fledgling lawyer to the systemic bias, corner-cutting and outright cheating that he sees permeating the criminal courts. While Dershowitz recognizes the ethical ambiguity that suffuses much of the law, he is more concerned with communicating the moral absolutes he believes in. These include the uncompromising obligation of a defense lawyer to work for the accused's acquittal by all legitimate means. A believer in telling the truth, Dershowitz excoriates deceitful lawyers and hypocritical judges alike. Along with the moral imperatives, the author tells some war stories and settles a few scores, for example, with critics who took him to task for defending O.J. Simpson, and with the Supreme Court, whose decision in the 2000 election case Dershowitz finds dishonest and unprincipled. The young lawyer (to whom these mini-essays are addressed) will perceive how ethically messy and complicated the law can be and how many core issues in our national life the law touches. Even more, the reader will come away with a sense of Dershowitz himself as teacher, tenacious advocate and self-described provocateur. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An extended graduation speech by America's leading legal gadfly. To his credit, Professor Dershowitz (Law/Harvard Univ.) admits that "I write like I talk." Readers hoping to find a collection of subtle, elegantly crafted essays about the law will be disappointed. Instead, this collection reads as though it had been dictated within the space of a sleepless 48 hours. But then that's quintessential Dershowitz: fast-thinking, fast-talking, and unapologetically opinionated. In a series modeled on Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (see Christopher Hitchens's Letters to a Young Contrarian, p. 1090), Dershowitz dispenses advice to those embarking on careers in the law. His reflections touch on many of his longstanding obsessions, particularly the unethical practices he contends compromise our criminal justice system. Nor can he resist firing off a few gratuitous salvos about his view that the Supreme Court corruptly influenced the outcome of the last presidential election. The Court's opinion, he writes, "should not be respected, any more than the robed cheaters who wrote it should be respected." Unlike its flamboyant author, however, little of the advice dispensed here is particularly controversial: Serve your client, not yourself; be willing to advocate for society's pariahs; and, above all, make career choices that are personally satisfying even if that means forgoing prestige. As though commenting on his current project, Dershowitz observes that certain of his Harvard colleagues resist publishing until a piece is perfect, a search that is "illusory and has no end." Instead, Dershowitz has opted "to publish my many imperfect books" in order to interject his voice into the"marketplace of ideas"-a highly appropriate motto for this highly imperfect collection. An uneven performance from one of our foremost celebrity lawyers.. . . Dodson, James THE DEWSWEEPERS: Seasons of Golf and Friendship Dutton (304 pp.) $24.95 Oct. 15, 2001

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Pick Your Heroes Carefully

Lawyers tend to be hero worshippers. Perhaps because we often work on an ethically ambiguous terrain, we need to create larger-than-life role models to look up to. We airbrush the warts of our heroes and turn them into saints who could do no wrong. Eventually, we learn the truth and we become disappointed, if not disillusioned. I know, since I have been through the process on several occasions.

    My own legal heroes included Clarence Darrow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan — as well as the two judges for whom I clerked, David Bazelon and Arthur Goldberg. They also included several of my law professors at Yale and older colleagues at Harvard. I wanted to be like these giants of the law. I grew up in a community and family with few judges or lawyers. I vividly remember asking my immigrant grandmother to introduce me to her friend Judge Berenkoff. She asked me why I wanted to meet Judge Berenkoff. I told her because he is a judge. Grandma laughed and told me that Berenkoff was a butcher. "Then why do you always refer to him as judge?" I asked. "Because that's his name," Grandma said. "Judge — G-E-O-R-G-E," she said, spelling out his first name with her thick Yiddish accent. "Judge" Berenkoff was about as close as I would get to a real judge in my old Brooklyn neighborhood. So, I searched for role models and found them among these judges, practicing lawyers and law professors — some living and some dead.

    I read everything I could about my dead heroes. When I was a student, legal biography was generally hagiography. I grew up in an age when most public figures were written about with praise. In my day, Clarence Darrow was beatified in Attorney for the Damned. Oliver Wendell Holmes was glorified in Yankee from Olympus. Thomas More was the hero of the play and film A Man for All Seasons.

    I'll never forget the day I saw the great actor Paul Muni portray the great lawyer Clarence Darrow on Broadway in the play Inherit the Wind. As I watched "Darrow" (he was called "Drummond") cross-examine "William Jennings Bryant" (he was called "Brady"), I knew precisely what kind of a lawyer I wanted to, and had to, become. I'll also never forget the day, many years later when I first learned that Darrow had almost certainly bribed witnesses and jurors in order to secure acquittals or hung juries in criminal cases. I was devastated. My hero not only had clay feet, his entire structure crumbled before me. I had been asked to write a review of a new book on Darrow by Geoffrey Cowan. The author, who was generally sympathetic to his subject, made an overwhelming case that in the interest of leveling the playing field against the large corporations that pressed for the conviction of his radical, labor union clients, Darrow had to pay the bribes. I was not persuaded. Whatever Darrow's motives, the convincing evidence that he bribed jurors forever disqualifies Darrow from being a role model for lawyers. There is simply no justification for corrupting the legal system, even if it is done to level the playing field.

    In his book, Cowan had written that law schools do not teach about such devices as bribery. In my review, I agreed:

The reason we do not teach such "devices" in law school is that they are not lawyers' tools. They may indeed be the tools of revolutionaries and others who work outside the system, and they may perhaps even be justified by a revolutionary means-end calculus. But a lawyer, who does lawyers' work, cannot employ such devices, regardless of the provocation. The lawyer may rail against the corruption of his opponents; the lawyer may expose or condemn — or perhaps even be right to resign from the practice of law to become a revolutionary, if the cause is just and the provocation sufficient. But the lawyer may not become part of the corruption in order to fight for justice as a lawyer. If Darrow crossed that line, as Cowan convincingly argues he did, then he does not deserve the mantle of honor he has proudly borne over most of this century. Those of us who have long regarded Darrow as a hero will be disappointed to learn of his clay feet, but ... the harsh claims of history must outweigh any inclination of hagiography, even when the subject is one of the very few lawyers who have had plausible claims to legal sainthood.

    These academic words, however, concealed a personal disappointment — even grief — that I did not feel comfortable revealing. Unlike the police chief in Casablanca, who expressed mock shock at learning there was gambling at Rick's Place, my shock was real and deep. It continued for weeks. I was consumed by how Darrow had tricked me into believing he was the kind of lawyer I wanted to be. Though Darrow was long dead, my anger toward him was very personal — the kind you might feel toward a close friend or lover who has betrayed you. I've never gotten over it.

    It wasn't as personal when I learned that most of my other heroes had clay feet — or at least one clay foot. The process of disillusionment was more gradual. I was let down more slowly when I discovered what horrible values Oliver Wendell Holmes had privately espoused in his letters to friends. He favored sterilization — perhaps even murder — of "incompetents." Holmes wrote approvingly of killing "anyone below standard" and "putting to death infants that didn't pass the examination." In upholding the constitutionality of mandatory sterilization laws, he approved the sterilization of a woman who was mistakenly classified as an "imbecile." Thousands of people, many of whom were misdiagnosed, were sterilized pursuant to the Holmes precedent. Even the Nazis cited this precedent in support of their program of racial eugenics.

    My anger at Felix Frankfurter, whose chair I currently occupy at Harvard, was pretty intense when I read about his refusal to help the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust, but I had already met Justice Frankfurter by that time, and I didn't like him — I found him to be petty and sycophantic — so the disappointment was muted. Not so with Justice Black, who I knew had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan before his elevation to the High Court, but who I thought had gotten over his early racism. Then he spoke to a group of law clerks during the year I was clerking on the Supreme Court, and it became evident that he still had some lingering racial bias. He also struck me as an extremely rigid man, not open to new ideas. Justice Douglas, who was open to ideas, was nasty to the law clerks, the secretaries and the other court personnel. He also got into a fight with Judge David Bazelon, for whom I had clerked, which revealed something about him that surprised me. Bazelon had been asked to speak at a private club to which Douglas belonged. The club excluded Jews and blacks. Bazelon, who was Jewish, declined the invitation, saying that he would not speak at a club that he, and others, would not be eligible to join. Douglas called him on the phone and started to berate him for his "narrow-mindedness." Bazelon signaled me to pick up the other receiver and listen. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Here was this paragon of racial and religious equality, trying to convince my boss to compromise his principles and speak to a segregated club. Bazelon stuck to his guns, and Douglas slammed down the phone in anger.

    My other heroes — Louis Brandeis, Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan — had lesser faults, but still, when I learned about them I was disappointed. Brandeis had engaged in some ethically questionable behavior as a lawyer, because he sometimes considered himself "counsel to the situation," rather than advocate for a particular client. Marshall was often poorly prepared when he argued cases, even important ones in the Supreme Court. Brennan refused to hire women law clerks for many years, and fired a law clerk — at the insistence of Chief Justice Earl Warren — when the clerk's left-wing activities became the subject of critical media reports. I still admire these three justices enormously, even with the knowledge that they weren't perfect.

    The same is true of the two judges for whom I worked. When you interact with someone on a daily basis, their virtues and their vices become magnified. "No one is a hero to his butler," says an old English saw, and no judge can ever be a flawless saint to his law clerks. But Judge David Bazelon and Justice Arthur Goldberg both served as imperfect role models for me in many important ways, as have some of my professors and older colleagues.

    So please, no heroes and no worship. Look up to people who have admirable traits, but understand that all have human foibles, some more than others. Expect to be disappointed, especially if you ever get to know personally those you look up to. Learn to live with the disappointments and still emulate those characteristics of your role models that warrant emulation. But even singular characteristics will rarely be without flaws.

    Law is an imperfect profession in which success can rarely be achieved without some sacrifice of principle. Thus all practicing lawyers — and most others in the profession — will necessarily be imperfect, especially in the eyes of young idealists. There is no perfect justice, just as there are no absolutes in ethics. But there is perfect injustice, and we know it when we see it.

    I can only imagine how so many law students, who were taught to revere the justices of our Supreme Court, must have reacted when they came to believe that five of the justices violated their oaths of office by stopping the Florida hand count in the 2000 presidential election. The judicial oath requires each justice to swear "to administer justice without regard to persons...."

    Despite this oath, the five justices — in complete disregard of their prior decisions and writings — stopped the count in order to ensure the election of a particular person — George W. Bush. They never would have stopped the count under the identical legal circumstances if the result would have been to ensure the election of Al Gore. If you do not believe that, consider the following law school hypo: Imagine if, six months before the election case, 1,000 of the most prominent constitutional law professors, Supreme Court litigators and journalists who cover the High Court had been given an approximation of the majority opinion in the Florida case. Only here's the twist. The names of the litigants and their party affiliations were not provided.

    Is there anyone who believes the experts would have predicted how the five justices actually wound up voting? To the contrary, most surely would have predicted that, on the basis of their prior decisions, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor would have been the least likely to join such a decision. After all, these judges have repeatedly ruled that the same equal protection clause is not violated when the state executes convicted murderers on the basis of far less precise standards. Had Vice President Al Gore been ahead by a few hundred votes and Governor George W. Bush been seeking a recount, I have no doubt these justices would have mocked any equal protection claim made by Gore.

    If I am right, then what else could this be but administering justice with regard to persons? To render judgment based on personal or partisan politics — on the party affiliations of the litigants — is to violate the first rule of judging. Never decide a case on the basis of favoritism.

    I have written about this decision in considerable detail elsewhere. Here my point is somewhat different. It is about the disillusionment that comes with learning that some justices actually cheat. You probably already suspected that some lower court judges play favorites with lawyers and litigants who supported their election or appointment. But Supreme Court justices? That came as a surprise even to a lifelong cynic like me. What does this revelation do to your commitment to the rule of law? Does it give you license to cheat?

    My hope is that it redoubles your commitment to the rule of law and to total honesty in its practice. It should also make you more suspicious of all legal and judicial institutions. Trust no one in power, including — especially — judges. Don't take judicial opinions at face value. Go back and read the transcript. Cite-check the cases. You will be amazed at how often you will find judges "finessing" the facts and the law. Too often, legal observers take as a given judges' intellectual honesty. It's up to you to do a better job. If you smell a rat, blow the whistle to the Judicial Conference, the American Bar Association, Congress. At the same time, protect yourself from accusations of unprofessional conduct by being absolutely sure of your criticism (never forget that judges and lawyers protect one another).

    In the meantime, get real. Understand that judges are human beings and that in American most of them have gotten where they are by playing the partisan political game, and playing it well. The best check on the judiciary is a suspicious consumer.

    It must start in law school. It must start with you.

Having said all of this, I must admit that I still have one perfect hero. He was a lawyer, but his heroism took place primarily outside of his professional role. I even met him and got to know him a bit, and yet his status as hero has not diminished one iota. His name is not widely known, and his particular heroism can never be replicated — at least I hope not. His name is Jan Karski, and he died in July 2000 at the age of eighty-six. When he was a twenty-eight-year-old lawyer-diplomat in Poland, this young Catholic school graduate went undercover into Jewish ghettos and death camps in order to report on the horrible, indeed lethal, conditions. He was captured by the Gestapo and tortured. After escaping, he went back to the death camps, risking his life repeatedly. He pulled out his own teeth in order to change his appearance and avoid detection. He might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives by disclosing the reality of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Poland. But when he was smuggled out of Poland with his detailed information, he was taken to see the most important Jew in Washington — a Jew who was close to President Franklin Roosevelt —Justice Felix Frankfurter. With a great lawyer's memory for detail, Karski reported on his visits to the ghettos and the death camps, giving specifics. Frankfurter refused to relate the information to Roosevelt, saying he could not believe what Karski was reporting. The reality is that Frankfurter did not want to risk his friendship and influence with Roosevelt by putting his own credibility behind a report that he thought Roosevelt might not believe. That is the difference between a true hero and a deeply flawed man of influence. Understand that difference and live by it.

Excerpted from letters to a young lawyer by Alan Dershowitz. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Dershowitz. Excerpted by permission.

Meet the Author

Alan Dershowitz is Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Known as a defense lawyer, he is also a litigator, columnist, lecturer, book reviewer, and prolific author. His recent books include Sexual McCarthyism, on the Starr investigation, and Reasonable Doubts, on the O. J. Simpson case. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Letters to a Young Lawyer 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book ¿ well written, cogent and persuasive ¿ the perfect launch of the new Art of Mentoring series. Alan M. Dershowitz, an impassioned and outspoken attorney, is keenly aware of the risks and pitfalls of legal practice. He squarely confronts the fact that lawyers often find themselves having to make moral or ethical choices in ambiguous circumstances in which the lesser of two evils is the only possible choice because there is no clear good ¿ and yet, no clearly lesser evil. The book does not pretend to be objective. It is a compilation of advice, great courtroom war stories, practical tips and philosophical conclusions. Dershowitz is a fighter who chose his side long ago and has no intention of deserting it. Some of his more liberal positions will seem wrong-headed or ill-considered to those who disagree. Well, not ill-considered; he is a thoughtful man who takes lawyering seriously. We recommend this book to you whether or not you intend to study or practice law. It is valuable for an audience far broader than only young lawyers, including those who hire them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of those books that has a promising preface, which made me want to read the rest of it. I am not a lawyer and it is hard for me to comment on virtues of authors legal insights. However, I found the book quite informative with regards to author's professional field - law. I found the weakest part of the book to be author's philosophical discussions about religion and goodness of human character. However, reader who has never heard of Hillel or Kohelet, may find these chapters of book quite educational.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Caution: This book contains some strong language that will offend some. I found it no worse than what is said on television talk shows every day, if you can read lips. . I highly recommend this book to all those who are thinking of going to law school, are attending law school, or are planning their legal careers. Professor Dershowitz (whose student I have been) tells it like it is about the many flaws in the legal system, the ways that law and personal morality come into conflict, and the flagrant abuses of power that occur. His purpose is to prepare you for what is coming, so that you can make a good decision about where practicing or teaching law fits the balance of professional challenge and personal integrity that makes sense to and for you. He also warns against those who give advice, noting that most describe how you can become like them . . . or repeat all of their mistakes because they have never learned from those experiences. Law is ¿ethically ambiguous terrain.¿ Then, section by section, he describes those moral ambiguities, especially as they occur in the criminal justice system. Although not everyone will agree with his advice, you will certainly see the terrain clearly. Perhaps the most interesting argument is that ¿the truly moral person . . . does the right thing without . . . reward or . . . punishment.¿ In making this case, he moves to a notion of morality that is beyond religious ethics. I could see myself again traveling down the road of disillusionment that Professor Dershowitz describes. First, we find a legal hero. What we don¿t realize is that this hero also has human flaws of which we will not approve. When we find out about those flaws, our sense of the idealism of the law is diminished. Then, we experience the rude shock of realizing that the process of law is about disposing of disputes, rather than creating ¿blind justice.¿ Your job as a lawyer is to go to the ethical limits on behalf of your client, even if you hate the client and her or his cause. Can such a ¿hired gun¿ emerge with honor? Professor Dershowitz argues ¿yes¿ but indicates that one¿s personal conscious will often be left bruised in the process. If you don¿t want to deal with that, many areas of the law aren¿t for you. He tells you which ones to avoid. He also tells you to find out what¿s coming, rather than to whine about it when it arrives. I agree wholeheartedly with that advice. I wish I had had this book to read as a young law student. I certainly intend to give it as a gift to young people who are thinking about or are beginning their legal studies or careers. Pay particular attention to the advice to balance what you are good at doing with what feels good to you. What should a profession provide in the way of satisfactions, opportunities, rewards, and challenges? Seek to be the professional whom you would like to hire for yourself! Donald Mitchell, co-author of The 2,000 Percent Solution and The Irresistible Growth Enterprise