John Farrell’s Biography of Clarence Darrow

March 17, 2011 Books


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.