Alan Morton Dershowitz is an American attorney, political commentator, and jurist. He has spent the past fifty years practicing the law and is well recognized for handling a number of high-profile legal cases. As a criminal appellate attorney, Alan has won fifteen, which is a high percentage of the dozens of attempted murder and murder cases he has managed. The attorney has represented several celebrities, which include Jim Bakker, Mike Tyson, and Patty Hearst. His most prominent cases include his role as an appellate consultant in the O.J. Simpson case, and for overturning the conviction of Claus von Bulow in 1984.
In addition to his consulting and appellate practice, Alan is a Professor at Harvard Law School. In 1967, at the age of twenty eight, he became the youngest full professor of law in its history. Since 1993, Alan has held the Felix Frankfurter professorship at Harvard.
The professor has published more than one hundred articles in journals and magazines such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Commentary, The Yale Law Journal and the Harvard Law Review. Alan has also written 30 books about law and politics, including The Case for Peace (2005); Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights (2004); The Case for Israel (2003); Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O.J. Simpson Case (1996); Chutzpah (1991) and Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case (1985).
Alan was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and he attended Yeshiva University High School. The future Harvard professor admitted he “went from being a straight C student in high school to a straight A student in college.” In 1959, he received his A.B. from Brooklyn College. While enrolled at Brooklyn College, Allan studied history, philosophy, and politics. In 1962, he earned his Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) from Yale Law School, graduating first in his class. Alan was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal. He is married to Carolyn Cohen and has three children.
When the professor isn't working, he enjoys long walks on the beach, good food, and watches basketball, baseball, and opera. For the past forty years, Alan has been a season ticket holder for the Boston Celtics. He regularly attends the Boston Red Sox home games and loves to play back yard basketball with his grandkids. The professor revealed he has a “wicked corner jump shot,” which he uses often to beat his seventeen year-old grandson in a game of horse. He also admitted he is a “beach bum,” who walks long hours on the Florida board walk and at the beach near his Martha's Vineyard home. Alan stated, “I do my best thinking walking on the beach.” The attorney is a frequent visitor at Clio, a sushi restaurant in Boston, and Chang Sho, a Chinese restaurant located in Cambridge.
Alan's Successful Law Career
Alan was asked if he received any awards or participated in any internship that influenced his decision to go into the law? The Harvard law professor stated, “When I was 7 or 8, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. People told me I have a big mouth and that I was argumentative.” The attorney continued to say he didn't know what the practice of law was at that time. His only perception of the law came from watching movies, where innocent criminals were represented by defense attorneys.
So why did Alan decide to become an attorney? He said movies had influenced his decision to become an attorney. His father also told him the “Jewish thing to do is defend the underdog.” The professor acknowledged that it never occurred to him to do anything else. He didn't want to be a corporate lawyer; he just wanted to defend people in trouble.
The appellate attorney had a phenomenal law school experience, but one of his most memorable moments was when he collaborated with two professors to write a book.
Alan discussed what he had a knack for. He claimed, “I am known to be a good brief writer, appellate attorney, and strategist. I am always over prepared for court appearance.”
The professor also discussed his strengths and weaknesses as an attorney. He noted his strengths as “preparation, [being] quick on my feet, and [that] I never give up.” As for weakness, Alan declared, “I am controversial and I don't hold back. People either like me or they don't. Nobody's neutral to me.”
What does Alan think about the field today? What would he change about it? He proclaimed, “It's too much of a business and too little of a learned profession whose role is to defend people. Many lawyers today are really business people.”
Alan would like to see attorneys “defend individual rights.” He also believes attorneys must handle pro bono work, where they are responsible for representing a certain amount of people who have no money. The professor added, “I would like to raise the quality of judiciary.”
Is there an area of the law Alan is most passionate about? The attorney asserted, “Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and civil liberties.” He expressed his opposition of the death penalty and is an advocate of defending people against crime.
Where does Alan see himself in five years? The professor will be retired and living in Florida. He explained he will spend time with his family and will continue to write and consult for individuals who need his assistance. The avid writer said he has another four or five books he would like to publish.
If Alan was not an attorney, what would he be doing? Although the professor would rather be a point guard for the Boston Celtics, he would have been an investigative journalist because it's the next closest profession to becoming an attorney.
When the professor was asked what motivates him to teach, he replied, “Teaching has an influence way beyond my lifetime.” He explained how he teaches eighteen year-old students and how he's able to influence them for the next sixty years. The Harvard professor was also proud of how he influenced many public officials who attended his class. He concluded, “I have a passion to get in front of class and exchange views with brilliant young women and men.”
In 1967, the attorney, who was only twenty eight, became a full professor at Harvard Law School. According to Wikipedia, “he was the youngest full professor of law in the school's history.” How did he feel about that accomplishment? The professor stated, “The fact that I was the youngest didn't strike me. I did everything young. My goal is to be the oldest professor at Harvard.”
What has been Alan's greatest accomplishment? The attorney claimed, “Changing the way of how homicide cases are appealed and creating new careers for lawyers.”
Does Allan have a toughest case? He answered, “All of my cases are tough. I never take easy cases. Pundits think I will lose. When I win, they are surprised.”
How does he want to be remembered? Alan said, “Somebody who helped the world.” He used the Hebrew phrase Tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world.”
Alan's Mentors, Pro Bono Work, and Non Profit Organizations
One of Alan's mentors is John Hope Franklin, a professor who taught him at Brooklyn College. He also has great admiration for David L. Bazelon, who used to be the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. After being admitted to the bar, Alan served as clerk for Judge Bazelon. What did he learn from him? The professor answered, “He is an important mentor. He taught me how to do well and good at the same time.” Alan acknowledged that Bazelon encouraged him until he passed away. The professor added, “It was like having a professional father. Sometimes we fought, but it was positive.”
The appellate attorney is also a mentor to his students. He takes the role very seriously and remains in touch with his students, who believe Alan is their “professor forever.” The professor discussed how he tries to mentor students who want to be civil and criminal attorneys because there are not many mentors for students. He encourages his students to be themselves, which was a quality that was taught to Alan by Professor Franklin.
The Harvard professor said fifty percent of his work is pro bono. Many of his most significant cases, including murder and death cases, have been pro bono. He explained how he represented dissidents in foreign countries such as the Soviet Union. The attorney used his own money on expenses and paid for experts.
Alan is involved with a non-profit organization called Hatzalah, a volunteer Israeli Emergency Medical Service (EMS) organization. The rescue organization involves Jews and Muslims, and enables them to work together to save people. Hatzalah uses vehicles to save people in the water. Alan has a motorcycle named after him in this organization; which saves lives.
Two High-Profile Cases
In Alan's book, Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O.J. Simpson Case (1996), he wrote: “the Simpson case will not be remembered in the next century. It will not rank as one of the trials of the century. It will not rank with the Nuremberg trials, the Rosenberg trial, Sacco and Vanzetti. It is on par with Leopold and Loeb and the Lindbergh case, all involving celebrities. It is also not one of the most important cases of my own career. I would rank it somewhere in the middle in terms of interest and importance.” Why does Alan feel this way? The professor stated the trial brought attention, but it “didn't establish any new principles of the law.”
What did Alan learn from the O.J. Simpson case? The attorney said, “There is deep racial division in our country and it still remains.”
He said he isn't close friends with the attorneys involved in the Simpson case; they are “professional acquaintances.”
In 1984, Alan overturned the conviction of Claus von Bülow for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny. What did he learn from this case? The professor proclaimed, “Winning an appeal is not just a technicality, I used the appeal to demonstrate his innocence.”
Alan's book, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case, was turned into a movie in 1990. The professor was played by actor Ron Silver, and Alan himself had a cameo role as a judge. Was Alan happy with Ron Silver's portrayal of himself? The attorney stated, “Oh, yes, very much. He's a tremendous actor. He did a great job.” Alan gave credit to Silver for coming to see him teach and argue before he played the attorney in the movie.
I would like to thank Alan for the forty minute interview. He was very professional and answered all of my questions without objecting.
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