Alan Dershowitz – famous law professor

5 minutes with... Alan Dershowitz

Alan DershowitzStarting out, what did you expect from a career in the law?

I didn't know any lawyers growing up but I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. My mother wanted me to open up a store front law office, where I did automobile accident cases, tax returns and immigration. My father said I should take the notary public exam to make sure that I always had a source of income. I didn't want to do that but I really had no idea of what I did want to do, beyond being a criminal defense lawyer.

What do you consider to have been your big break?

Early in my teaching career, I was asked to represent a kid from my neighborhood who was charged with murder in a Jewish Defense League case. I represented him for free and everybody said the case was unwinnable. When I won it on constitutional grounds, clients began to call. I was also writing articles for The New York Times and other publications.

What differences do you see in today’s legal market compared to when you started?

When I started, there was no legal 'market'. Lawyers were paid almost nothing. Nobody talked about money. Law was regarded as a learned profession rather than as a business. The American Lawyer magazine changed all that by reporting on law as a business, including salaries and earnings. Law is now very much a bottom line business.

What achievement are you most proud of?  

My human rights work in helping to free many Soviet dissidents and in saving the lives of several people on death row.

“I urge my students not to have heroes. Every hero has clay feet.”

What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?

The fact that I have been unable to turn around the growing delegitimation of Israel in much of academia. But I haven't given up. Israel's right to exist and to defend its citizens is one of the great human rights issues of the day, and those who abuse human rights by singling out Israel for unjust condemnation are destroying the concept of human rights. I have worked too hard to protect human rights to stand by silently and watch that concept so abused.

What law would you want to change, abolish or create?

I would like to see capital punishment abolished. I would also like to see the scope of the criminal law considerably reduced, especially in the area of victimless crimes.

Who is your legal hero?  

I urge my students not to have heroes. Every hero has clay feet. If I had to pick one hero, it would probably be the late Václav Havel, who brought real democracy to the Czech Republic without shedding any blood.

What career would you have in your second life?

Point guard for the Boston Celtics, shortstop for the Boston Red Sox or, more realistically, an investigative reporter. I love solving mysteries.

How would you like to be remembered?  

“He never compromised his principles and he accomplished what he did without a computer.”