I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Alan Dershowitz, the legendary lawyer and law professor who recently “retired” after teaching at Harvard Law School after 50 years. I place “retired” in scare quotes because, as Dershowitz explained to the Boston Globe, “My retirement consists of reducing my schedule down to only about 10 things at any given time.”
Indeed, judging from the energy he displayed in his appearance at the Harvard Club of New York, the indefatigable attorney and public intellectual shows no signs of slowing down. The prolific author just published yet another book, a well-received memoir, Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law (affiliate link).
Here are some highlights from Professor Dershowitz’s remarks….
The event took the form of a conversation between Dershowitz and Steven Molo — another one of the nation’s top litigators, founding partner of the high-powered MoloLamken boutique. Molo played the role of interviewer, guiding the conversation by posing questions to Dershowitz. Molo’s questions were excellent — thoughtful, provocative, reflecting lots of research — but the enthusiastic Dershowitz needed little prodding. The large and attentive audience included such legal luminaries as Robert Morgenthau, former Manhattan District Attorney, and Ron Kuby, the prominent criminal defense and civil rights lawyer.
Dershowitz began by talking about his early legal career, including his clerkships for Judge David Bazelon (D.C. Cir.) and Justice Arthur Goldberg. He shared his account (which you can read in full in Taking the Stand) of how he had to interrupt the justices’ private conference on Friday, November 22, 1963, to inform them that President John F. Kennedy had been shot — and how several of the justices wound up watching the news coverage around young Dershowitz’s black and white television, the only TV at One First Street at the time. Justice Byron White was crying; Chief Justice Earl Warren directed his colleagues to disperse, in case high-ranking officials other than the president were being targeted as well. (This is one reason why SCOTUS clerkships are so coveted — the chance to be an eyewitness to history.)
Talk then turned to how Dershowitz, as a young Harvard law professor, started to take on outside cases. He wanted to gain more practical experience to improve his teaching, but his move wasn’t well-received by all of his HLS colleagues. As one of them told him, with a touch of hauteur, “At Harvard Law School, we don’t have clients.”
One of his first cases involved a family friend who asked for help in a case where a neighborhood kid faced the death penalty. Dershowitz loved the experience of working on the matter, won the case, and from that point forward was hooked on trying cases. He also found that his outside work helped his scholarship and teaching (and vice versa).
Over the years that he has tried cases, Dershowitz has gained a reputation as a savvy media personality. Molo asked Dershowitz about his approach to the “court of public opinion.” Dershowitz explained that, contrary to the claims of some of his critics, he doesn’t seek out publicity; instead, he uses the media as much as the other side does.
“I want to try the case in the courtroom,” he said. “But if you hold a press conference on the courtroom steps, I will go there too. If you go on TV, I’ll go on TV too. I tell the prosecutor: you’re in control.”
Speaking of cases being tried in the court of public opinion, Dershowitz fielded some questions about various high-profile matters currently dominating the headlines. On the subject of Donald Sterling, Dershowitz offered somewhat guarded remarks, noting that his son is actually a lawyer for the NBA. Dershowitz did observe, however, that it was a terrible decision for Sterling to appear on Anderson Cooper. Prior to his interview with Cooper, Sterling could argue that he didn’t do anything, that he was simply recorded without his knowledge or consent; after voluntarily talking to Cooper, where he proceeded to make additional offensive comments, Sterling lost that defense.
Dershowitz also commented on the controversy over WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, and NSA surveillance. Even though he is famous for his defense of free speech and the First Amendment, Dershowitz did acknowledge that some information must be withheld from the public — for example, the names of undercover agents or the location of safe houses. On the question of metadata, the type of information being collected by the NSA, Dershowitz argued for a more nuanced approach than what is currently employed. Should the government have the right to collect metadata? It should depend on the nature of the metadata in question, he argued.
One of the most fun parts of the evening involved Dershowitz dishing on some of his celebrity clients (but dishing in an ethically acceptable way; he pointedly noted that what he shared with us was already out in the public record). He described Mike Tyson as “a real mensch” and a nice, gentle man. The late Leona Helmsley, in contrast, truly was the Queen of Mean. One time he met with her for breakfast at one of her hotels. When the server brought out a cup of coffee, Helmsley noticed that a tiny amount of liquid had somehow landed in the saucer. She picked up the cup and threw it down on the floor, where it shattered, then told the server to start begging to keep his job. The disgusted Dershowitz stood up at that point and left, telling Helmsley that although he would continue to represent her as a client, as he had agreed to do, he would never again appear with her in public.
And what about his most (in)famous client of all, O.J. Simpson? Dershowitz described Simpson as “a very involved client,” actively participating in decisions about the trial. Despite the ultimate victory, it wasn’t an easy case to work on: “We did not have a dream team; we had a nightmare team. The lawyers did not get along. I was lucky I was just a consultant.”
What does Dershowitz make of the jury’s acquittal of Simpson? Making a strong case that at least some of the evidence presented against Simpson was fabricated — such as blood on socks that was clearly planted (see page 239 of Taking The Stand for more details) — he framed the question this way: what do you do as a juror when there is strong evidence of a defendant’s guilt, but you believe at least some of that evidence was manufactured? In such a situation, and given the high standard of proof applicable to criminal cases, a verdict of “not guilty” can be justified.
After the talk, Dershowitz graciously stayed to mingle and chat with the guests. When I met him, I explained that we had previously emailed, when I wrote a story about his Manhattan apartment.
“Oh, so you’re from Above the Law!” he said.
“Yes, that’s right,” I said.
“I liked the story you wrote about my apartment. But the one you guys did about my daughter appearing nude….”
“Well, she is a beautiful and talented young woman,” I said. “And, um, I think my colleague Joe Patrice wrote that one….”
Thanks to Alan Dershowitz and MoloLamken for a most memorable evening. Professor Dershowitz sparks wildly divergent opinions — some of them, both nice and nasty, are collected on the back cover of Taking the Stand — but he’s a brilliant and fascinating speaker, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law [Amazon (affiliate link)]