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What I’m Reading: Roger J. Dennis

August 29, 2012

Roger Dennis

Roger Dennis is the Founding Dean of the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel. His teaching currently focuses on the federal regulation of the purchase and sale of securities, the raising of capital, and the operation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in light of changing economic and political environments.

Dennis took advantage of some free time on a recent vacation and read Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell. It was a bestseller last year but, more importantly, it zeroes in on the life of Clarence Darrow, one of the most fascinating and complex individuals in the history of American law, Dennis said.

Why did you choose this book?

My wife knows I’m a fan of Clarence Darrow and she brought this book home for me from the library. Reading it was a real busman’s holiday for a law dean. Darrow was perhaps the greatest lawyer of the progressive era.

Darrow (born in 1857) could make the courtroom into a Shakespearean theater of the first order. He was a legal idealist, championing the underclass against the powerful and connected. His list of famous trials is awesomely long. He also was a pretty miserable human being, cheating on wives and law partners.

Still, he was an icon of American law. And he grew up in rural Ohio, just east of where I grew up.

Did the book live up to your expectations?

The biography is very balanced. It emphasized the complexity of Darrow as a person and presented him as he really was— a flawed human being who was an outstanding lawyer with a passion for the little people. This book wonderfully captures his techniques as a trial lawyer. It reads well for lawyers and non-lawyers alike and it relies on some fascinating newly discovered primary materials such as diaries and letters.

The author, John Farrell, is not a professional historian but it’s a good read and an awesome piece of historical work. There is a huge bibliography in the back of the book that is as interesting as the story.

What is it about this book/topic that you find important or enjoyable?

I enjoyed reading about some of his well-known trials. One that many people might know about is the Leopold and Loeb case from the mid-1920s. Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr., and Richard Albert Loeb were college students who killed a 14-year-old boy for the thrill of it. Clearly they were going to hang. One of the centerpieces of Darrow’s professional career was his absolute opposition to the death penalty. He took the case on and came up with a strategy to save their lives. His closing remarks at that trial are a masterpiece of legal rhetoric. Judge John R. Caverly was in tears by the end of the closing arguments.

Another famous trial of his is the trial of Big Bill Haywood, a union leader accused of murdering the governor of Idaho (Frank Steunenberg). Darrow was brought in for the defense, since he was one of the premier lawyers for labor unions in a tremendous era of labor disputes and strikes and violence. Haywood was eventually acquitted.

How would you summarize this book?

Darrow’s life was really like a movie. He was sort of like the Forrest Gump of the progressive age—he was everywhere that everything important happened, he was just an amazing combination of a trial lawyer, a public intellectual and a politician.

He didn’t believe in free will. He didn’t believe in good or evil or moral absolutes. He believed in mercy.