Skip to main content

Dershowitz, Alan M.

Alan M. Dershowitz

American criminal defense lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz (born 1938) came to prominence through his vigorous representation of such high-profile clients as Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson. An emphatic proponent of civil liberties, he was also a prolific writer and frequent guest on radio and television programs. While some have found his choice of clients and knack for publicity offensive, Dershowitz has remained firm in his view that he is fighting the good fight.

Brooklyn to Harvard

Dershowitz was born on September 1, 1938, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the first baby in his family to be delivered outside the home, and his father was a wholesaler of blue jeans. As a child Dershowitz was happy and outgoing, but scarcely anyone's idea of a scholar. Boston colleague Harvey Silverglate explained to Pope Brock of People, "Alan was not slated to be a great success when he was a kid. He was a disciplinary problem. In some ways I suppose he still is. He almost didn't go to college." According to Michael Neill of People, Dershowitz's principal at Yeshiva University High School was not overly impressed with the young man's potential, either, telling him in a counseling session, "You have a good mouth on you, but no head. So you gotta do something that you need a good mouth for but no brains. Become a lawyer." It took a while, but Dershowitz followed the advice to unexpected levels.

A turning point came when Dershowitz was accepted into Brooklyn College, where his rambunctious spirit was not just tolerated, but encouraged. He engaged in convivial and spirited arguments with everyone from the college president, anti-Communist Harry Gideonse, to conservative professor Eugene Scalia (father of eventual U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), and thrived while doing so. Dershowitz credited the college with having allowed him to come into his own. According to Marek Fuchs of the New York Times, Dershowitz felt that "his acceptance letter from Brooklyn College [was] the most important document of his life." (Not incidentally, he repaid the debt many years later by donating all his papers to his alma mater.) He graduated in 1959.

Dershowitz took his new-found resolve and ambition to Yale Law School, where he was editor of the Yale Law Journal and graduated first in his class in 1962. Before his graduation, however, he was given a sharp reminder of ugliness in the world when anti-Semitism closed Wall Street's doors to the promising young law student looking for a summer job. Luckily it was a minor setback. After receiving his law degree, Dershowitz clerked for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg before hiring on as an assistant professor of law at Harvard Law School in 1964. He became a full professor there three years later at the age of 28, making him the youngest such in the school's history. But Dershowitz did not simply rest on his Harvard laurels.

Criminal Defense

During his long tenure at Harvard, Dershowitz taught such courses as criminal law, constitutional litigation, human rights, civil liberties and violence, the Bible and justice, and neurobiology and the law. By all accounts, he was a very popular teacher and he steadfastly maintained that it was what he liked to do most. Nonetheless, it was Dershowitz's part-time practice as an appellate litigator that made him famous.

An avid advocate of civil liberties, Dershowitz soon became noted for a parade of what many considered unsavory, or even odious, clients. Although he defended indigent people as well as high profile clients, it was naturally the latter for which he became known. The list included porn star Harry Reems, boxer Mike Tyson, "Queen of Mean" Leona Helmsley, evangelist Jim Bakker, and deposed Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos. Perhaps the first of such clients to put Dershowitz squarely in the spotlight was socialite Claus von Bulow, who was convicted of trying to kill his wife in 1982. Thanks to Dershowitz's appellate work, the conviction was overturned in 1984 and von Bulow was found not guilty in his second trial. The case became a media circus, and Dershowitz drew fire by publishing a book about it, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bulow Case, while a civil suit was still pending against the defendant. The attorney strongly denied any wrongdoing, the book was made into a successful movie in 1990, and Dershowitz became as well known as his client.

A commentary on Dershowitz's notable cases would hardly be complete without mention of the O.J. Simpson case in the mid-1990s. As a member of the defense team that prevailed in the murder trial of the ex-football great, Dershowitz became not just famous, but infamous. The trial was undoubtedly the most highly-publicized of its time, and it was televised, giving the public front row seats for the entire spectacle. Dershowitz was often vilified after the acquittal, but he ardently believed that the case's very unpopularity was what made his taking it important. "I knew I would get criticism, including from my mother," he told Byron York of the National Review. "But I'm proud of my work in that case, particularly because it was so unpopular. I see that as being absolutely consistent with being a Harvard professor. That's precisely the kind of case that a Harvard Law professor should be in." Indeed, Dershowitz clearly considered the controversy that was inherent in taking such cases to be a badge of honor. As he later told Fuchs, "A criminal defense attorney has to be as proud of his enemies as of his friends." But it is important to note that Dershowitz was not criticized for simply defending such unpalatable clients; apparently his real "crime" was in winning for them.

Media Darling

As Dershowitz's courtroom successes increased his stature as an attorney, his writing and media appearances broadened his audience and made him a household name. He was a prolific contributor to myriad magazines, journals, and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times. As of 2006, he had written over 20 books (primarily non-fiction), including Chutzpah (1991), The Advocate's Devil (1994), The Abuse Excuse: And Other Cop-outs, Sob Stories, and Evasions of Responsibility (1994), The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice That Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law (2000), and America On Trial: Inside the Legal Battles That Transformed Our Nation (2004). He had a gift for putting arcane legal concepts into readily accessible language. As he told Sarah F. Gold of Publishers Weekly, "My theory is, if I can't explain to the general public a complicated legal problem, it's my fault…. This is democracy. If they can't explain it, they're hiding something from you."

This talent for plain speaking also made Dershowitz a favorite on television and radio programs, from the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour to Today to Nightline, to the Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live. Besides radio and television, he was profiled in major publications, and had his own talk radio program. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing publicity was also a lightning rod for criticism. Accusations of self-aggrandizement and a runaway ego were common. Dershowitz, however, maintained his high profile was misleading and that defending his well-known clients actually took up only a small portion of his time. The time it did consume, he believed, was worth it in order to reach the proverbial "person on the street." "We have to build a much deeper commitment to civil liberties," he told Brock. "I don't think it's enough to persuade five [Supreme Court] Justices. I have to persuade Joe Sixpack." And, to his credit, Dershowitz never denied that he enjoyed it. He told York," I can't deny that it's fun…. But the TV stuff is very much an extra. If I spend, say, two hours a week on television, and 50 hours a week doing my work quietly, it's the two hours that people see."

Civil Libertarian

Even if one believed Dershowitz was merely an arrogant publicity hound with an agenda, it was hard to dispute that his agenda included an abiding devotion to the First Amendment, civil liberties, and the law in general. His 1979 Guggenheim Fellowship for his work in human rights, 1993 appointment as Harvard's Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, 1996 Freedom of Speech Award from the National Association of Radio Show Talk Hosts, and many other accolades spoke to those commitments, as did such books as Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000 (2001) and Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age (2002). He could certainly be abrasive and aggressive, but many saw those qualities as testaments to his convictions about civil liberties. Silverglate told Brock, "Alan is stubbornly principled. He's opposed to any form of tyranny. People like that manage to alienate everybody at some point."

Dershowitz told Chris Lamb of Editor & Publisher that he was "criticized by people of all political persuasions, including conservatives for defending liberal causes and liberals for defending conservative causes." And that, in his view, was the way it was supposed to be. He was, after all, an advocate. "The system of justice is only as good as it is toward the worst person," he explained to Brock. "Once it begins to compromise there, the slippery slope begins. So because I want that system to be there for you and me, I want it to be there for everyone. Even for, say, a Josef Mengele [a Nazi war criminal]." It is hard to imagine how Dershowitz could have put it more understandably and pointedly than that.

Periodicals

Boston Globe, July 9, 2005.

Editor & Publisher, September 10, 1994.

Long Island Business News, February 16, 2001.

National Review, February 5, 2001.

New York Times, June 22, 2005.

People, October 3, 1988; July 30, 1990.

Publishers Weekly, June 18, 2001.

Online

"Alan Dershowitz," NNDB, http://www.nndb.com/people/013/000023941/ (January 4, 2006).

"Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, Attorney at Law, Author," Harvard Law School, http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/dershowitz/biography.html (January 4, 2006).

"Alan M. Dershowitz," Harvard Law School, http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/directory/facdir.php?id=12 (January 4, 2006).

"Alan M. Dershowitz," IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0220641/ (January 4, 2006).

"Dershowitz, Alan," New York Public Library, http://www.catnyp.nypl.org (January 8, 2006).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dershowitz, Alan M.." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dershowitz, Alan M.." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dershowitz-alan-m

"Dershowitz, Alan M.." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 12, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dershowitz-alan-m

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.