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“Letters to a Young Lawyer” by Alan M. Dershowitz (Basic Books, 226 pages, $22) When I grow up, I would like to be Alan Dershowitz. The most famous appellate lawyer working today, the holder of the Felix Frankfurter chair at Harvard Law School is able to practice, teach, comment, write, and do it all according to his own values and without any apologies for his chutzpah. Yet like the sophists before him, he is despised more for his success than his failure. Over the years, he has become notorious by winning such controversial cases as those on behalf of Claus von Bulow, Harry Reems, Mia Farrow, the Chicago Seven, Jim Bakker, Michael Milken, John Landis, Leona Helmsley, Mike Tyson, John DeLorean, Axl Rose, Patricia Hearst, Penthouse, Muhammad Ali and John Lennon. His “Letters to a Young Lawyer” addresses more than the anxieties of his students. It serves not only as an explanation of his career choices but also as an example of his principled decision making. Agree or disagree, open-minded individuals should be impressed by both his clever rhetoric and intellectual integrity. Like any good law professor, Dershowitz asks many hard questions. Unlike most law professors, he also provides a few good answers. Speaking directly to the self-proclaimed greedy associates who pocket $150,000 per year right out of law school, but complain that they are asked to work weekends at their firms, Dershowitz warns against the obvious forms of corruption and the more subtle decisions to give up beliefs for lucre. He tells us that he has turned down jobs such as law school deanships, because he recognizes that the apparent prestige is not worth giving up his true calling. But with an ability to recognize the truth of seemingly contradictory positions, he also cautions that contrary to those who talk about the importance of balancing work with lifestyles, “there are many people who should regret not having spent more time at work” and who “failed to achieve their potential because of laziness or misplaced priorities.” He makes commonplace recommendations such as to take those jobs to which we actually wish to devote our lives and commit ourselves to honesty in advocacy. He can be quite funny: “Pick your enemies as carefully as your friends.” “Don’t be a ‘Sara Lee’ lawyer. Remember the slogan: ‘Nobody doesn’t like Sarah Lee.’ Of course not. It’s a cake.” “Don’t follow ‘Off-the-Rack’ advice.” “Your client is not your friend.” “The ability of lawyers to rationalize their position is unlimited.” Along with the suggestions, Dershowitz makes an effort to defend attorneys in general that will be considered heroic only by his peers in the profession, especially the plaintiffs’ bar and criminal defense bar. Everyone knows the William Shakespeare quote about killing all the lawyers — taken out of context from “Henry VI,” where it was spoken by the leader of an angry mob — and Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that any dispute here eventually becomes a legal case. Even French noble J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, who celebrated the founding of the republic in his “Letters from an American Farmer,” noted that lawyers “once they have taken root … will extinguish every other vegetable that grows around them,” making their fortune without labor. He said, “[W]hat a pity that our forefathers, who happily extinguished so many fatal customs, and expunged from their new government so many errors and abuses … did not also prevent the introduction of a set of men so dangerous.” Having had many personal experiences with the anger of these sentiments, Dershowitz recounts how his wife, once she became involved in a minor civil case, became exasperated with members of the bar. During a break in mediation of the matter, she wondered exactly what late-night obscene callers have demanded to know of her husband: How could lawyers do that? Dershowitz takes on all such critics, even commenting on his role in the O.J. Simpson trial. He has an answer to the questions about defending guilty people, even if he does not quite have an antidote for the anger directed at lawyers in our litigious society. The conventional answers are: Lawyers are not the same as their clients; everyone deserves a defense; and we as a diverse democracy have other values of justice related to but distinct from just punishing the guilty. There is another answer based on an analogy: Patients expect doctors to help them when they have a heart attack, whether they are right or wrong — they don’t expect the surgeon to refuse them entry to the emergency room because they smoke, drink, eat red meat or fail to exercise. Dershowitz spares nobody. We even learn that, as a youth, he was a “C” student who was a sports fan and girl-chaser, until a mentor noted his intelligence. He opens with a story about his own idol, Clarence Darrow, committing clear ethical violations such as bribing jurors. The Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore is the culminating event in his disillusionment, because of the raw politics of the judicial votes. Dershowitz also says President Bill Clinton should have defaulted the Paula Jones lawsuit. He offers anecdotes about abuses of prosecutorial discretion (he recites a litany of misconduct such as suborning perjury), and he is strident in condemning defense lawyers for cigarette companies (cigarettes were promoted with deliberately false ads, he contends, leading to more deaths each year than from violent felonies). For all his doubts, Dershowitz still believes in the adversarial nature of our legal system. It allows society to strive for justice, however imperfectly, and gives the less popular parties the ability to equalize imbalances, at least to a limited extent. Therefore, Dershowitz urges, we ought to love justice as a goal and understand the law is merely a tool. Dershowitz’s book is the first in a series — others include pundit Christopher Hitchens giving his counsel to young critics. Even if Dershowitz is not a prose stylist to match romantic poet Rainer Marie Rilke, whose “Letters to a Young Poet” inspired this line, he is as entertaining as he is edifying. His short volume of various musings reads as if he is chatting directly with the reader — that informality comes with advantages and disadvantages. It’s as if Dershowitz were right there to harangue you, but this is not a volume of profound scholarship. There is no doubt that Dershowitz seeks to dissuade anyone from aspiring to be like him. His message is more profound than that of seeking admirers. He hopes to guide each of us toward what would be meaningful for us as well as beneficial for society. He deserves praise for that and much else. His words will serve young lawyers and old lawyers alike. Frank H. Wu, a law professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., is the author of “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White” (Basic, 2001).

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