PRINT PAGEJohn Farrell’s Biography of Clarence Darrow

Written by Roy Black


Clarence Darrow with Leopold and Loeb

Darrow with Leopold and Loeb

March 13th marked 75 years since the death of Clarence Darrow. I just had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of John Farrell’s new biography of Darrow. I enjoyed it immensely and wrote a blurb for it: “Clarence Darrow confounded titles: a freethinker, hedonist, anarchist, populist, infidel, cynic and master storyteller who became our greatest lawyer and a folk hero. Farrell’s masterful, sweeping new biography not only does justice to all his roles but joyously satisfies even a Darrow addict like me.”

Here is the Amazon link to Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned.

And I am a self-confessed Darrow addict. It all started when I became a public defender right out of law school. Of course I had no idea what I was doing so I spent a lot of time studying the classics about lawyers and trials. The absolute best was by historians Arthur and Lila Weinberg who published a compilation of Darrow’s great jury speeches. Before that, I knew his name and his fame but had no real insight why he was so famous.

I vividly recall opening the Weinberg book and reading Darrow’s sentencing argument in Leopold and Loeb. I was floored. I could see it written as a philosophical essay or book chapter which was endlessly edited, enhanced and profusely footnoted, by a historian or a philosopher, but a lawyer, pleading for two killers, standing on his own two feet, in a jam-packed courtroom? Not possible, yet it happened. Since that day, I read everything published about this legal genius, not for the history, but I must confess, searching for a way to catch some of his magic.

How did he accomplish this? What made him greater than all the other thousands of fine trial lawyers? This was a question which haunted me for years. Farrell answers it in his biography. He quotes from many of Darrow’s political speeches, newspaper essays and public debates. It became clear to me that Darrow spent his life studying politics, sociology, psychology and just plain people. He developed a personal philosophy and then presented his ideas about life to the public. The courtroom was just an extension of everything else he did in his life. He argued what he believed in and you can’t beat that.

We no longer have as much public discourse as in Darrow’s day and perhaps there will never be another Darrow because of it. Too many lawyers are now mere technicians, more interested in discovery motions and bickering over mundane details than preparing a great jury argument. Also many avoid a trial at all costs. It is too difficult, too much work, too expensive, or too high a risk of a large blow to the ego. But I intend to instill his methods in my students and any lawyers I teach. Perhaps one day there will be a renaissance of trial lawyers who can once again deliver awe-inspiring jury speeches.

At the very least every trial lawyer should buy Farrell’s book to see for themselves how Darrow trained himself to be the best.

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8 Comments to John Farrell’s Biography of Clarence Darrow

  1. monte burke's Gravatar monte burke
    March 17, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been a fan of Darrow. I first became interested reading the history of the The State of Tennessee v. Scopes. Darrow vs Bryan was a heavyweight bout I would have loved seeing. The creation-evolution controversy being argued by the best would have been something to hehold.

  2. March 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Roy, that same personality trait of Darrow’s is what makes Gerry Spence so good. He is very opinionated and he takes those opinions into the courtroom and mixes it with a little bit of theater. He goes outside the lines of traditional courtroom arguments and masterfully presents a case. His longwinded-ness wears down the opponent. I’m sure you’ve seen the video of the Sandy Jones case, where he did an opening statement lasting into eternity. Of course, he had good facts too. The average judge would never let an attorney get away with such a long opening statement, but when you have a reputation you have a real advantage. Finally, by practicing in more rural areas, Spence is like a big fish in a small pond.
    But in my opinion, F. Lee Bailey is the cross-examination master. I learned a lot from watching his cross-examination of the hair and fiber expert named Deedrick in the Simpson case. I have the video if you want to see it.

  3. Me too's Gravatar Me too
    March 21, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Ya think Weinberg ought to sue over Farrell’s plagiaristic title??

    • May 25, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Plagiarism is a nasty charge. Please retract it. As far as I can determined, Arthur Weinberg took the 1950s-era title of his collection of Darrow speeches from Lincoln Steffens, who used it in a Saturday Review article in 1932, which I credit in the introduction to my book.

  4. Barrie Robinson's Gravatar Barrie Robinson
    July 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Good onya John , can’t wait to get the book, sounds a terrific read, just watched you on aussie “ABC Lateline ” . Ever since I saw ” Inherit the wind ” in 1958 I’ve been a big fan of Clarence Darrow.

  5. American Minority's Gravatar American Minority
    January 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Black Thanks for sharing, I just finished reading your book “Blacks Law” for the third time being that I am a native citizen of Dade County and grew up staring at your trials as I was born in 1979, it’s ads even more excitement to the read. I ordered” Attorney for the Damned” and Im digesting it daily.

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