Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book review: Letters to a young lawyer by Alan Dershowitz

Harvard law professor and author Alan Dershowitz has acquired a reputation as a vigorous defence attorney so it is apt that he shares some reflections with aspiring lawyers. With his vast experience with high-profile cases, some of them involving the defence of unpopular criminals, he carefully dissects the learned profession from the perspective of a pragmatic advocate.

He took a good precaution at the beginning of the book by explicitly noting that his letters would be biased, reflecting his tendentious evaluation of the profession as well as proffering advice to the end that the advisee would become more like him. I appreciate his frankness in this regard because I disagree with some of his observations, especially the ones about the political calculations that some legal actors may have made in the past. I may say more about this in the future.

One often gets the advice to be skeptical of authority or established norms that don't prove their utility over time. For example, one sometimes gets the advice to pursue what interests them as opposed to what others might think they should pursue--one should live their own dreams and not that of others. Dershowitz has walked his talk, pursuing goals that he finds stimulating as opposed to ones that may endear him to others or make his life comfortable and "dignified."

Dershowitz also addresses ethical issues in a manner that betrays his obsession with them. In particular, in the conclusion of the book he addresses the question of morality and why one should be a good person. This discussion is laden with a personal reading of the book of Ecclesiastes as well as a peculiar understanding of his at-least-cultural Jewish faith--an interpretation with which I disagree. The book is enlightening, self-deprecating at times and suffused with pertinent personal anecdotes that aspiring lawyers should find germane to their goals.

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