This above all: to thine own self be true;
And it must follow as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III
From Cicero to Carnegie, the greats and not-so-greats love to dispense advice. And advice comes in many forms. Lawyers dish it out in spades. So, Šit must follow as the night the day' that the self-proclaimed "lawyer with the most fascinating legal practice in the world," Alan Dershowitz, makes a contribution to the advice canon, in his Letters to a Young Lawyer.
A slim read of two hundred pages, Letters to a Young Lawyer is bubbling with "Dershowisdom"¨"a mix of practical advice about careers, philosophical ruminations about justice, psychological insights into winning and losing¨and even some speculations on whether it is possible to be both an effective professional and a good person (a Šmensch', as his mother would put it)".
Throw in a little O.J., a dash of Talmud and some serious Supreme Court bashing in connection with the Florida ballot controversy to make Mr. Dershowitz a legal Forest Gump: life is like a box of chocolatesÓyou never know what you're going to get from the man of whom Larry King and Geraldo cannot seem to get enough.
The best advice often creates a hip "reality check". The proverbial Ann Landerism "Honey, wake up and smell the coffee" invariably comes to mind. "As a lawyer," writes Mr. Dershowitz, "You will see corruption all around you, unless you deliberately blind yourself to it. You will hear policeman lying through their teeth to convict people who they believe are guilty but whose constitutional rights they violated in order to secure the evidence of their guilt." Advice is always grounded in the counselor's cold hard stare at the world¨bitter medicine from the famous Dr. D.
Advice literature also elevates experience to a new art form. Some of my personal favorites: "Start every day with a smile and get it over with," from W.C. Fields. "The future will be better tomorrow," compliments of Dan Quayle. "Buy land. They ain't making any more of the stuff"¨Will Rogers. And from Ms. Erica Jong, "advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn't." This from a woman who wrote Fear of Flying. She knows of where she speaks.
A Harvard law professor for thirty-seven years and an accomplished court room advocate, Mr. Dershowitz is an advice impresario. On being a litigator, he observes that if you're not ready for a life of being constantly tested and graded by others, prepare wills. "Dead clients don't grade you!" On the approach to clients, remember "your client is not your friend, and your friend should not become your client." And on professionalism, "Passion should not be reserved for the bedroom. It must extend to your life's work." Who could forget Johnnie L. Cochran Jr's pithy and lyrical advice to the Simpson jury "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
Ultimately, advice is a religious act. The desire to provide counsel stems from spiritual generosity, from sharing your soul's perspective with another. Mr. Dershowitz is concerned with the intersection of law and morality. This is the most charming and profound aspect of the book. A graduate of Yeshiva High School, Mr. Dershowitz's legal life is quite grounded in Jewish scholarship. The question "why be good?" frames his professionalism in a demanding field such as the practice of criminal law. Towards the book's conclusion, he cites the Biblical admonition, "Justice, justice shall you pursue" and the wonderful dictum from Rabbi Hillel "If I am for myself alone, what am I."
His favorite story from the Talmud:
It involves a class about the law of property. The teacher explained that if somebody finds a valuable bird more than fifty feet from someone's house, the bird belongs to the person who found it. But if someone finds a valuable bird within fifty feet of someone's house, it belongs to the person whose house it was found near. Young Jeremiah, a student, raised his hand and asked the following question: "But Rabbi, what if one foot of the bird is within fifty feet and one foot of the bird is outside of fifty feet? What is the rule?" And the Talmud says, "For asking that question Jeremiah was thrown out of the yeshiva."
Vintage advice from Alan Dershowitz¨a little wisdom, a lot of chutzpa. ˛
Martin Halpern, a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, was called to the bar in 1990. Since then, he has taught legal subjects at a number of academic institutions including McMaster University, Seneca College and Sheridan College. He is currently working as a lawyer specializing in knowledge management for the law firm of McCarthy Tetrault in Toronto.