WILLIAM M. KUNSTLER by David J. Langum


The Most Hated Lawyer in America
Email this review


In a vivid, thoughtfully enthusiastic critique, Langum (Law/Samford Univ.; Crossing the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act, 1994) outlines the life, loves, and legal struggles of the radical lawyer who defended such diverse clients as the Chicago Seven, the Attica prison insurgents, Jack Ruby, and John Gotti. Langum, a libertarian though not a radical, admires Kunstler for “his willingness to do battle against the government” at a time when the author perceives an increasing threat to individual liberty from the growing power of the federal government. However, Kunstler emerges here as a protean figure whose personality and legal philosophy defy easy classification. As Langum shows, commencing with his representation of members of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Kunstler identified with the New Left and indeed often represented political radicals. Also, Kunstler would frequently politicize the causes of his indigent and minority clients, articulating ideological legal defenses intended more to expose the hollowness of the judicial system and to point up societal issues like racism than to obtain acquittal for his clients. Still, as Langum shows, Kunstler carried on a conventional law practice for many years and represented many nonideological clients, including mob figures, and despite his radical contempt for judges, colleagues, and the conventions of the bar and bench, usually conducted himself in the courtroom with exemplary professionalism and decorum. Langum sketches Kunstler’s complex, appealing personality and details his love of writing, his two marriages, and his womanizing habits. Langum also analyzes several of Kunstler’s important trials and describes his sometimes off-the-cuff trial preparation and technique, his prodigious work ethic, and the effect of his affable personality and outsized ego on clients, judges, and adversaries. While conceding that Kunstler was no saint, Langum concludes that, to combat the growing despotism of the federal government, “thousands of Kunstlers are needed.” An absorbing, reflective narrative of the life and crusades of America’s quintessential “people’s lawyer.” (16 photos)

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8147-5150-4
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: New York Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999