Claus von Bülow, Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson, and a number of lesser-known names, from the indigent to the infamous, have been Alan Dershowitz’s clients.
Some may have been unpopular, but the noted attorney has always seen value in taking up their cases, even when he believed he might lose.
“I think of it the way Abraham thought of it when he had to defend the sinners of Sodom. And he had a more powerful adversary,” Dershowitz said, referring to the Jewish forefather’s plea with God to spare the (ultimately destroyed) biblical city known for its corruption on behalf of any righteous people who may have been living there.
But no matter whom he has defended or faced over the course of a five-decade legal career, the 75-year-old Dershowitz says his most profound critics come from a different forum — the classroom.
“I am teacher first and foremost,” says the Harvard Law School professor, whose latest teachings are contained in his 30th book, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law,” which was released Oct. 15. “I teach in my classes. I teach when I am on television. I teach when I write my books. I even try to teach when I am arguing my cases. It is my dominant role. It is what I have been doing for 50 years and everything else emanated from my role as teacher.”
Asked why he chose to write a memoir now, Dershowitz says he has reached a “milestone” in his life.
“I worked very hard in this book to try to put together the story of my life in a way that is readable and exciting,” he says. “I have been very fortunate to live in an exciting time in the law and I have been able to be a part of it.”
The book is not only a memoir, but also “a biography of the law” over the last 50 years, Dershowitz explains. It encompasses the evolution of the attorney’s thinking on issues as censorship, the First Amendment, civil rights, abortion, homicide and the increasing role that science plays in a legal defense.
“I have been very fortunate to live in an exciting time in the law,” he says, “and I have been able to be a part of it.”
The book also covers Dershowitz’s academic struggles in high school. Recalling how he “always had a big mouth,” Dershowitz recalls that his rabbi at New York’s Yeshiva University High School, Avraham Zuroff, is the one who set him on his life’s path.
“[Zuroff] said I had to do something where I could use my mouth and not my brain,” he says.
Dershowitz quickly took the field by storm, attending Yale University for undergraduate studies, serving as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and becoming the youngest full professor in the history of Harvard Law School by age 28.
“Being a contentious person made me a naturally good teacher,” he says. “I was able to engage the students and not be boring.”
While students assume Dershowitz will be “gone half the time,” the only reason he ever misses class is for a higher calling — not from the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The only classes I miss are for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he says.
Raised as a modern Orthodox Jew, Dershowitz studied Torah, Talmud, and other Jewish sources, all of which he says had an impact on him. His 2001 book, “The Genesis of Justice,” takes lessons from the first book of the Torah to illuminate ideas of contemporary law and ethics.
“I very much enjoy reading religious sources, and I use them in my teaching,” Dershowitz says. He notes a citation from the Torah that he uses to discuss abortion. “It has helped me very much to be a better lawyer and a better teacher.”
Author of “The Case for Israel,” Dershowitz says growing up in a family of “strong religious Zionists” shaped his support of the Jewish state and his willingness to vocally defend the country when it comes under fire on the international stage. The same could be said of his legal career.
“My parents — my father in particular — always said you always have to defend the underdog, and I always saw the law as a vehicle for me to do that,” he says. “Supporting Israel was always supporting the underdog, whether it was militarily or politically or internationally, and I have always felt comfortable in that role.”
Among Dershowitz’s other “underdogs” were his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers and, after he moved to Boston, the beleaguered Red Sox, who ended an 86-year Major League Baseball championship drought in 2004.
While some may see Dershowitz’s life as a complex collection of segments that range from legal to political to spiritual, the legal giant himself sees his life as one coherent piece. He explains that all his passions represent “the same direction.” The common thread, he says, is aligning with the underdog.
When it comes to Israel, Dershowitz vows to use “one standard, as opposed to the double standard that is used in the rest of the world.” His advice for defenders of Israel is to be unrelenting, falling in line with the reputation he developed in the courtroom.
“Never give up,” Dershowitz says. “Always fight back. Never settle for an injustice and never accept injustice as the final answer. Always demand justice and be willing to fight for it.”
“Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law,” by Alan Dershowitz, Crown, 2013, 528 pages, $16.80.