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

Harvard Law School Professor emeritus Alan M. Dershowitz.
Harvard Law School Professor emeritus Alan M. Dershowitz.
By Dev A. Patel, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

A CONTROVERSIAL ‘TORCHBEARER’

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.

Still, such harassment has not deterred Dershowitz—in fact, he frequently engages in “deep and spirited dialogue” with those who contest his opinions, according to Ogletree. “He’s a man who believes in jumping in the fire,” Ogletree says. “Controversy has never been a factor in preventing him from expressing his point of view.”

A STREETFIGHTER’S CLASSROOM

This fearless approach to argument has come to dominate Dershowitz’s approach to litigation and to teaching—two roles he often seems to blend.

“In my own life, I’ve tried to bring my theory into the courtroom and my practice into the classroom,” Dershowitz says. “Superb lawyers have to be able to integrate theory and practice.”

And Dershowitz credits his performance in the courtroom—he calls himself the most successful appellate murder lawyer in history and has argued 37 homicide cases—to his experience in the classroom.

“It’s very gratifying because I win them through science,” he says. “I win them by bringing the classroom into the courtroom.” In a recent victory, for example, Dershowitz argued the reversal of a life imprisonment sentence using the content of his course on law and psychiatry.

In turn, Dershowitz’s time in court informs his pedagogical approach, in which he neglects hypotheticals in favor of cases he has personally experienced and argues with his students as though they are opposing counsel.

“He’s very challenging,” says Law School student Michele Materni, who took two classes from Dershowitz and now works as his teaching fellow for a freshman seminar at the College. “He loves to put out his ideas, and he loves it even more when students challenge him.”

Those moments of discord stand out for Dershowitz, who calls himself “Socratic with a smile.”

“I never insult my students, but I push them very, very hard,” he says. While the Socratic method has recently come under fire at the Law School, Dershowitz defends the technique. “I think if we were to ever get rid of the Socratic method, it would be a disaster for legal education,” he says. “Our job is to make [students] squirm, to make them rethink their ideas, to make them challenge what they regard as fundamental notions.”

But while Dershowitz may force his students to defend their opinions with the same gusto with which he attacks his critics and opponents, he insists that his students need not share his views.

“I don’t want to influence Ted Cruz to become more liberal. I want to teach him to have better analytic skills that will make him a better conservative,” says Dershowitz of former pupil Ted Cruz, the firebrand Republican Senator from Texas who graduated from the Law School in 1995. “I think the worst professors are those who use their captive audiences to persuade them of their own ideology or perspectives.”

NO REGRETS

When the Law School semester officially ends next week, Dershowitz will leave a job he has held for the last half century.

Dershowitz says he has no regrets. “I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do, I’ve written the books I’ve wanted to write, I’ve taught the classes I’ve wanted to teach,” he says.

For Dershowitz, the professorial lifestyle has allowed him to “do everything.”

“I have a terminal case of FOMS, fear of missing something, and I never wanted to miss anything,” Dershowitz says. “My life has been based off of trying to do everything at the same time.”

Looking ahead, Dershowitz plans to split his time between Miami Beach, Martha’s Vineyard, and New York, writing, litigating, and having fun, he says—but not teaching.

Still, he does not view next week as his retirement. “I think of it as a career change,” he says. “I’ve had one job for 50 years just teaching at Harvard, and now I’m 75, so I’m thinking of what I want to do next.”

—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at dev.patel@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.

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