Embracing the Fight: A Portrait of Alan Dershowitz After 50 Years at Harvard Law School

The Lightning Rod
Katherine M Kulik

Harvard Law School Professor emeritus Alan M. Dershowitz.

Few academics are accused of being war criminals, and fewer still would choose to print the accusation on the back cover of their book. Alan M. Dershowitz, however, is not a typical academic, and has covered the dust jacket of his recent autobiography, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law,” with criticism and praise alike.

The same man that MIT professor Noam Chomsky describes as “not very bright [and]...strongly opposed to civil liberties” is lauded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the greatest defender of truth. And where former President Bill Clinton calls Dershowitz “hopeful and wise,” journalist Glenn Greenwald asserts that the Harvard Law School professor is “deranged.”

Dershowitz, 75, has been a lightning rod for dispute throughout his legal career. As arguably the best-known criminal lawyer in the United States and perhaps Harvard Law School’s most prominent professor, he has argued some of the most divisive cases in the country and frequently broadcasts his opinion on issues ranging from terrorism in Israel to the use of torture as a coercive technique.

In one week, Dershowitz will retire from a 50-year career at the Law School during which he taught more than 10,000 students, including many who have gone on to join him on the faculty. Harvard loses a man who blurred the lines between his roles as teacher and lawyer, trademarking what colleagues call “the aggressive argument.”

“There’s more streetfighter in Alan than traditional academic,” concludes Law School professor Charles R. Nesson ’60.



First in his class at Yale Law School, editor of the Yale Law Journal, clerk at the Supreme Court, and one of the youngest tenured professors at Harvard, Dershowitz had a rapid rise to stardom in the legal field.

Over the years, he has represented big-name clients ranging from O.J. Simpson to Mike Tyson. “He’s not a name dropper, though he could be,” Law School professor emeritus David R. Herwitz says.

Yet Dershowitz is perhaps best known for expressing bold opinions that would earn both himself and the Law School much notoriety. Armed with tenure at age 28—and all of the job security that such an appointment affords—Dershowitz began accumulating allies and opponents, a mix epitomized by the comments on the back of his book.

“Law professors should stir up controversy. Law professors should take stances on public issues,” says legal journalist Jeffrey R. Toobin ’82, a former Crimson sports and editorial editor who took criminal law with Dershowitz and covered him at various points throughout his career. “I certainly don’t agree with everything he says, but the whole point of tenure is that you’re supposed to take a strong stance.”

Nesson adds that Dershowitz’s style of argument mirrors his often outspoken nature. “In a way, [controversy] sort of is his career. He’s not up to charm you,” Nesson says. “It’s sort of like he doesn’t take prisoners. When he’s up against you, he’s not pulling any punches, so you might come out of it feeling like you got pretty well knocked around. He’s not above a personal attack.”

“Alan epitomizes aggressive argument,” Nesson continues. “He wins by overpowering in a sense, by just being stronger.”

Dershowitz’s tenure has also tied him to Harvard, and he is seen by many as the face of the Law School.

“Among the general public, when they imagine Harvard Law School, they imagine him,” says Law School professor I. Glenn Cohen, calling Dershowitz a “torchbearer” for the school. “For people who like him, that’s great and is a positive thing for the Law School. For people who don’t, maybe it’s a less positive thing.”

Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., whose office is near Dershowitz’s on the top floor of the Law School’s Hauser Hall, in an area they call the “secure ward,” says they both receive a considerable number of threats.


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