Monday, November 05, 2007


At the start of a new semester of law school (and for the underbars out there, the first day of work for many), let me give some space to Alan Dershowitz (Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, also a litigator, columnist, lecturer and prolific author; he has been counsel for the accused in many high profile cases in the U.S.) who, in Letters to a Young Lawyer writes this interesting and certainly provocative piece.

Dont' Do What You're Best At
By: Alan Dershowitz

Some of the least happy people I know are those who figure out what they are best at and then tailor the job to their particular expertise. The problem is that what you're best at is not necessarily what gives you the most gratification or what is most important. Our educational system steers students towards courses and areas in which they excel. Grades are, after all, quite important to getting into college and law school. And it's ok to take courses in which you will excel. But courses last only a few months. Life is forever. So pick a career, or an area within your career, that balances excellence and gratification. It should challenge you every day and have you waking up eager to confront the day's challenges. Obviously you don't want to pick something you're not very good at, no matter how much you might enjoy it (for me, that would be basketball) [Ted's Note: It is uncanny that I would have the same notation as regards basketball, which I enjoy greatly but am not skilled at] Pick an area that you're quite good at but that gives you so much joy that you can't wait to get up in the morning and go to work.

Early in my career, when I was less controversial, I was offered law school deanships and university presidencies. I knew enough about myself to turn them down. In one instance, I wrote a "Groucho Marx" reply, saying that I would not want to join a club--or in this case, a school--that would have me as its dean. A dean or president must be able to bring people together. I drive them apart. I am a provocateur, not a pacifier. I would enjoy the prestige of being dean, a president or perhaps a judge, but I would hate the day-to-day aspects of the job.

I know too many people who have taken prestigious jobs--deanships, chairmanships, judgeships, professorships, partnerships--simply because they were flattered to be offered them. Understand the difference between being offered a job and accepting it. It is flattering, even career-enhancing, to be offered a prestigious job, but it is a terrible mistake to accept the job unless it is right for you--at the stage of life you are when it is offered.

Having said that, another word of caution: Don't love your work too much, especially if you're a lawyer. When I was a young lawyer, my elders would talk too about the law being a jealous mistress or loving the law. Don't love the law. It will inevitably disappoint you. Understand that the law is a tool, a mechanism, a construct. It is a false idol like so many others in life. In one respect, there is no such thing as "The Law." What we call the law is a process, a group of people, some ideas, precedents, books. Don't respect the law, unless it merits your respect. The law in Nazi Germany or in apartheid South Africa or in the Jim Crow South did not deserve respect. The Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore should be followed--that's what it means to live under the rule of law. But it should not be respected, any more than the robed cheaters who wrote it should be respected. American law today sometimes deserves respect, other times it deserves condemnation. It must always be obeyed, but it need not be admired. Honesty is more important than respect.

If you don't love the law, what should you love (aside from loved ones)? Love liberty. Love justice. Love the good that law can produce. Aspirations don't disappoint, so long as you realize that the struggle for liberty, justice and anything else worth pursuing never stays won.

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