He who represents himself ...

Alan Dershowitz's latest book is a trial for readers

If you're a new attorney seeking career guidance, don't look to Alan Dershowitz's latest book for help.

Dershowitz, a law professor, television talking head, and criminal defense attorney to the infamous, fills his 14th book, "Letters to a Young Lawyer," with loads of advice. But it doesn't take a Harvard law professor to figure out that you shouldn't take cash from shady clients.

Among other pearls of wisdom: Temper your idealism. Bad people deserve good lawyers, too. And leading off one chapter, Dershowitz observes, "Passion should not be reserved for the bedroom. It must extend to your life's work."

Dershowitz looks to a familiar source for inspiration: himself. Readers learn that he ranked first in his class at Harvard Law before becoming the youngest full professor in the school's history.

He twice lifts chunks of his novel, "The Advocate's Devil," and then quotes from a review of that book for good measure. There are also replies he wrote to critics of his criminal defense work and a lengthy portion of a trial transcript where a judge berated his cross-examination technique. (Dershowitz won the case anyway.)

Much of his advice is relevant to the tiny subset of lawyers who, like him, graduate at the top of the nation's elite law schools. But few new lawyers will confront the ethical dilemmas of a Supreme Court clerk or argue before the Supreme Court.

At its best, this book explains why lawyers and nonlawyers alike should be skeptical about the criminal justice system and its many participants. Rule No. 1 of the justice game, Dershowitz says, is: "Most criminal defendants are, in fact, guilty." Another rule: Many police lie about whether they have violated the Constitution in order to convict guilty defendants.

He doesn't have much that is flattering to say about judges, either, arguing that "the heavy thumb of careerism is on the scale of justice in nearly every criminal case."

He does a good job of laying out the challenges lawyers face to be zealous yet ethical advocates. "If you are a decent and thinking person," he warns, "you will never grow entirely comfortable with some of the tactics you will be required to employ as an effective and ethical lawyer."

But overall, this little book reads as though it were quickly churned out during a long weekend or between appearances on "Court TV." With frequent digs at the Supreme Court's decision in favor of George W. Bush, it sometimes feels as if Dershowitz recycled polemical leftovers from his last book on the 2000 election.

At one point, Dershowitz notes that he likes to publish a book a year to share his ideas as widely as possible. It's time for a recess.

Seth Stern is a member of the Monitor staff and a Harvard Law School graduate.

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