What are the attributes of a world-class lawyer? ‘Confrontational, unapologetic, brash, tough, argumentative, and uncompromising’ are some of the words Alan Dershowitz uses to describe himself in his recently-published autobiography. ‘Modest’ is possibly not one of them. At times, Taking the Stand reads more like a relentless tribute to the famous US law professor and defence attorney than a memoir. But given Dershowitz’s prolific career perhaps that’s understandable; the introduction alone reads like the CV to end all CVs. From a law clerk to both a Court of Appeal chief judge and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court,to the youngest professor in the history of Harvard Law School, defence attorney on the Ted Kennedy investigation, the deportation of John Lennon, the Deep Throat obscenity prosecution, the O.J. Simpson “trial of the century”, David Crosby’s drug charge, the Claus von Bülow attempted murder trial (made into the film Reversal of Fortune), Mike Tyson’s rape prosecution, the Woody Allen-Mia Marrow custody battle, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the Bush v Gore election dispute, the trial of Patricia Hearst, the defence of Wikileaks and to Julian Assange… to name a few. The list of Presidents, Prime Ministers, actors, musicians, writers and public figures who have sought Derschovitz’s advice over his long career reads like a who’s-who of the second half of the twentieth century, and the book is peppered with anecdotal vignettes of encounters with the rich, famous and infamous.
For the budding law student, Taking the Stand is a must-read for its discussion of some fundamental legal problems, such as the constitutionality of the death sentence, the legality of the use of torture to prevent a terrorist attack and whether someone can be charged with attempted murder for shooting a dead body. Part of Derschovitz’s success as a teacher and a lawyer is his ability to break down difficult issues to explain, understand and ultimately undermine arguments and the book offers a front seat into his thought process. The reader also gains a lawyer’s insight into how interpretation of the law and practice of the law has changed – the advancements in the use of forensic science in criminal trials, the evolution of arguments and defences surrounding rape and continuing interpretations of First Amendment rights – and thus a better understanding of both the way things currently stand and how they are likely to develop in the future.
Topping the list of legal memoirs from this side of the Atlantic are The Justice Game by Geoffrey Robertson and Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer by Michael Mansfield. Between them, these two QCs have covered some of the most important and controversial cases of English law in the past half-century.
‘Radical lawyer’ Mansfield has fought countless miscarriages of justice and his memoir details the background behind some of the most important: the Cambridge Two, the Cardiff Three, the Tottenham Four, the Bridgewater Four, the Stoke Newington Eight, the Bradford Twelve and, possibly the most well-known of the ‘numbers’, the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Many of the cases he has worked on have hinged upon the fallibility of forensic science – fingerprinting, DNA profiling, drug tracing, handwriting analysis, forensic psychology, even earprinting – and Mansfield’s scrutiny of its power to both falsely convict and exonerate the innocent is absorbing reading for any fan of CSI. He provides an insider’s account of some of the most notorious wrongful convictions in recent history, including that of Barry George, imprisoned for the murder of Jill Dando, and Angela Cannings, convicted for smothering two of her babies to death. Dramatic reversals such as these can also provide a light for others wrongly accused – the exoneration of Cannings lead to a review of two hundred other cases involving unexplained infant deaths.
Like Dershowitz, Robertson is highly respected for his defence of fundamental liberties. In The Justice Game, he describes some landmark pre-HRA cases including Mary Whitehouse v Denis Lemon and Gay News  A.C. 617, an early courtroom battle between religion and homosexuality, and the censorship and obscenity trial involving the National Theatre production The Romans in Britain. He has taken on cases throughout the Commonwealth, from Trinidad to Antigua, Singapore to Veranda, and is known for his extensive human rights work around the world. His memoirs too offer an indispensable insider’s perspective on many of these high-profile cases and gives the reader an understanding of the complex relationship between politics and the law, as demonstrated by the ABC trial, the Matrix Churchill prosecution and the cash-for-questions scandal.
Beyond prosecutions, both Mansfield and Robertson have also been involved in another pillar of the English justice system – the inquest. Robertson describes his involvement with the inquest into the death of Helen Smith and the Blom-Cooper Commission inquiry into the smuggling of guns from Israel through Antigua to Columbia; Mansfield on the inquests into Bloody Sunday, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. A distrust of the state and the police weaves a common thread through both memoirs, most poignantly in Mansfield’s account of the miner’s strike of 1984-5 that describes the brutal action of the police and the media vilification of a struggling community.
What comes across strongly in all three books is a passion for the law and an unwavering belief in the need to uphold justice. The fearless determination of Dershowitz, Mansfield and Robertson – all of whom have put their lives on the line for their work – to protect human rights and liberties is laudable and inspiring. For any student beginning to doubt their career choice, any one of these books will reaffirm your belief in the importance of the role that lawyers play in upholding the rule of law; of the need to defend the guilty, to challenge the state and constantly question and search for the truth. As Robertson ends, ‘justice is the most serious and important game of all’.