For Young Trial Lawyers
Becoming a Trial Attorney and Taking on Unpopular Cases: My Conversation With Alan Dershowitz
06/27/2017 11:36 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2017
Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law Professor Emeritus, knows a thing or two about the practice of law and teaching law students. At 28, he became the youngest full Professor of Law in the history of Harvard Law School.
He was already a noted attorney by the time he became a member of the legal dream team that represented O.J. Simpson during his 1994 murder trial.
If a law student wants to be a successful trial lawyer, what steps can be taken while the student is in law school?
While they’re in law school they should watch some trials, and they should probably try to get a job even as an unpaid intern with a really, really good trial lawyer—civil trial lawyer, criminal trial lawyer, depending on what their interests are. But, you don’t learn trial law in law school, you learn it from watching and participating for the most part.
Should students be selective as to which attorney they are applying to become an intern?
Absolutely. They should ask around a lot and find out by reputation who the best attorneys are. The other things students should do if they want to be a trial lawyer is to learn science. They have to learn about DNA. They have to learn about the experiential method. They have to learn about a range of issues that will come up during trials that will allow them to question witnesses, and they will have to have a scientific background to do that.
Does it matter where a student goes to law school? What about the student who does not attend the elites?
I think most of the great trial lawyers throughout American history have not gone to elite schools. Elite schools cannot turn out trial lawyers. They tend to turn out more corporate lawyers, so going to a law school that’s not one of the elite law schools is not a real disadvantage in becoming a trial lawyer. When you win cases, no one asks you what law school you went to; they want to see results.
If you don’t go to an elite law school you should still try to take some courses in college or universities about the scientific method, DNA, so that you can get to know more science than most lawyers know.
My success has been largely based on my knowledge of science. Knowing how to tear apart a case that the prosecution presented by looking at the scientific evidence, whether it be DNA evidence or blood spatter evidence. I didn’t learn it in law school, certainly, and I did not learn it in college. I picked it up on my own. But I think a student can learn it earlier in their career than I was able to and it will help them enormously.
In your career, you’ve taken positions that are at times unpopular. What is your advice to students who will eventually have to take up an unpopular cause? Is there any ethos you live by that has guided you?
Well, I’m lucky because I am able to take controversial cases. My career is fairly well established. I think that early on, students might have some consequences if they take on cases that are very, very, very unpopular like child molestation cases or cases of that kind. But, that’s a judgment call. These are the kind of cases that also bring you a lot of attention if you win them particularly. But people don’t love criminal lawyers who win cases. People didn’t love me when I helped in the O.J. Simpson case. People have yet to make a judgement call about that but for the most part you shouldn’t shy away from different or unpopular cases.
I really think it is very important for everyone to have a defense. So I tend to be attracted to unpopular cases because I can afford to do that. I take on cases that no one will take on. It gets me a lot of hate mail, but it gives me a lot of gratification that I am a lawyer of last resort: if no one will take on a case, I will often take on that case.
Does the legal profession have room for innovation? Are law schools doing their jobs in teaching young attorneys to evolve?
Unfortunately, not as quickly as they should. I don’t think law school today prepares you to be an innovative, particularly criminal lawyer, but any kind of trial lawyer with some exceptions. But, I do think that for the most part you’re going to have to learn on your own the tactics and strategies that distinguish a really good lawyer from a lawyer that is only average or mediocre. So, I think that there’s going to be learning on your own.
I think being a trial lawyer is the most exciting part of law, it is like being in the emergency room of the legal system all the time. You’re always being challenged; you’re always on your toes. So, for me, I wouldn’t do it any other way. I would always want to be a trial lawyer, an appellate lawyer, a criminal lawyer, somebody who is on the cutting edge of the legal system.