U.S. District Court Judge (Massachusetts) Gertner spent 25 years as a civil-rights and criminal-defense lawyer before being confirmed in 1994. Her thoroughly engaging, outspoken memoir about those years might be considered a bold move for a seated judge who should maintain an image of neutrality, but not a surprising one if you consider the values that have defined her career.
The author’s story is that of “breaking into and succeeding in the quintessential man’s world…told by one of many women who desperately tried to put her fancy legal skills at the service of society’s most maligned members.” She writes this memoir to preserve her pre-judge identity as an advocate, as well as to remind the next generation of women, particularly those rejecting feminism, of the choices she and her contemporaries fought hard to maintain. Gertner narrates her personal experiences—of a humble upbringing in Queens, attending Barnard and Yale, building a law practice, earning the respect of her opponents and balancing her job with a family (she has three children with husband John Reinstein, ACLU Legal Director)—alongside stories of the landmark cases she worked on. Defending anti–Vietnam War activist Susan Saxe from accusations of robbery and murder catapulted Gertner onto the legal stage at the beginning of her career. Rape, abortion, malpractice, murder, sexual harassment, extortion and academic discrimination trials followed, cementing her formidable reputation as one of Boston’s best lawyers. While the author can be a little too obvious about the pride she takes in her impressive persona (“I suppose you have to be somewhat driven to characterize teaching at Harvard as time off”), the narrative is well-paced. Lofty musings on the justice system’s ability to access “the truth” and the role of litigation in shifting social standards will be cited in law-school classes, while amusing anecdotes will resonate with general readers.
Fits Gertner’s description of herself: “funny, irreverent, dramatic, prepared.”