William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America.
New York: New York University Press, 2000. xii + 452 pp. Notes and index.
$34.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8147-5150-4 .
Thomas Hilbink , Institute for Law & Society, New York University.
Tracing the Trajectory of a Radical Lawyer
final year of college I was deeply engaged in writing my senior thesis, a
history of the Lawyers' Constitutional Defense Committee, a group formed in
1964 to provide legal assistance to civil rights workers participating in
the Mississippi Freedom Summer. A number of attorneys mentioned to me
that William Kunstler had encouraged them to volunteer for the group. It
seemed important that I talk to him. I called, he agreed to be interviewed,
and I headed to Greenwich Village.
home and office were in a row house on a small street near Sixth Avenue, his
office window looked up from the basement to the street. Upon entering, I
found the scene to be just as I imagined it would be: Total chaos. Kunstler
and his partner, Ron Kuby, were hard at work. There were mementos all around
from icons of the political left. Papers were piled on the desk and his
glasses were balanced on his forehead. This was exciting. I spoke to him --
in between shouts to and from Kuby -- for about an hour and then he
suggested I accompany him to a class he was teaching at New York Law
School. As we walked down the street towards Sixth Avenue he put his arm
in mine, the way a grandfather might do for closeness and support. He asked
me how I liked college and other such things. As we stood on the corner a
cabbie stopped, rolled down his window, shook Kunstler's hand, and drove
off. "My public," Kunstler said with a mix of glee, irony, and arrogance. We
hopped in another cab. "Are you Sikh?" Kunstler asked, and then engaged the
driver in a conversation about some Sikh clients for whom he had worked. We
arrived at our destination, shook hands, and I headed back uptown. William
Kunstler, in our brief encounter, was a warm, attentive person who seemed to
care about me, a college student! I cared in return. He had charmed me. You
could say I loved him.
David Langum's recent biography, William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated
Lawyer in America, is any indication, I was in good company. The book's
title carries a certain irony. Though hated by many in his professional
capacity, William Kunstler was a man who needed to be loved and who
possessed a "consuming need for belonging" (p. 208). He sought out allies
and friends and charmed many of those who abhorred him. For Langum, a
professor of law at Samford University, this only raises a dilemma: "How
could a man who so craved admiration and love make such outrageous
statements? Kunstler's actions would seem almost calculated to bring about
public disapprobation and opprobrium, rather than love and admiration" (p.
has, by and large, produced what Judge Richard Posner has described as a
"scientific" biography, wherein the author seeks to identify psychological
causes of the subject's beliefs and actions. The major questions driving
the biography are: "What made this guy tick? What inner qualities did
Kunstler possess that made him do what he did?" Again, to use Posner's
language, Langum has gone in search of Kunstler's "essential self." To
this end, the book spends a great deal of time discussing the private man
behind the public persona.
early chapters Langum analyzes Kunstler's childhood. We learn that Kunstler
was ashamed of his father (a proctologist) and his middle-class upbringing.
Kunstler's childhood desires to be "part of the black world" and to join a
"goyim gang" are revealed. To his credit, Langum is careful not to point to
any one of these experiences as the root cause of Kunstler's mid-life
transformation into a radical lawyer. He does use them, however, as
harbingers of Kunstler's future.
According to Langum, Kunstler's shame of being middle-class caused him to
reject many aspects of middle-class life, and his desire to belong to a
group other than his own explains his identification with civil rights
workers, prisoners, and anti-war radicals, among others. In one chapter
after another, these childhood characteristics reappear. For example, in
discussing Kunstler's involvement in New Left culture during the Chicago
Seven trial, Langum explains, "This identification with the defendants
reflected Kunstler's old need for a sense of belonging, and paradoxically a
desire to belong to a group in which he could never fully fit" (p. 125). It
is in such moments that Langum finds the answer to the biography's central
dilemma: what many (or most) saw as outrageous behavior worthy of
disapprobation and even opprobrium, others (especially defendants and their
allies) saw as heroic and worthy of deep love and respect. There was an
intensity of feeling that surely brought Kunstler what he was looking for.
admit to a bias against biographies whose methodology involves putting their
subjects on the couch. Much more interesting to me (reflecting my bias as an
historian) are the ways in which a person both reflects and shapes his or
her historical setting. I will concede that many people read biographies to
discover the inner life of the subject, but using personal experience to
explain a life requires a delicate balance, recognizing the many forces that
influence a person's life trajectory. A person is shaped by personal
experience (the micro) as well as historical forces (the macro). It is
understandable that biographers often look primarily at personal experiences
to explain their subjects. After all, people tend to make sense of their
lives at the micro level. Nearly a century of Freudian psychology has
encouraged us to look first and foremost to inner rather than outer
influences. But ultimately, the macro -- historical -- factors play a large
role as well. It is in documenting such factors that the historian can make
the greatest contribution. Such information places the individual in a
context that helps the contemporary reader make more sense of that person's
life as well as the historical contingency of all lives.
such context -- which makes exemplary biography so elusive -- that is
missing from The Most Hated Lawyer in America. The reliance on so
much personal detail to explain the motivations of a public figure seems
misplaced. I was often unsure why Langum included some information. For
instance, the need for detailed documentation of Kunstler's sexual
experience as a teenager is unclear, not only due to its prurient nature,
but in its failure to illuminate the nature and importance of Kunstler's
life and work. Of course, the personal may be political. Arguably, Langum's
significant attention to Kunstler's sexual history (especially in the 1960s)
reveals the extent to which he adopted the counter-culture ways of his
clients. But I am reminded of Laura Kalman's skepticism towards such
information. "By its very nature," she writes, "biography tempts us into
believing that there is a relationship between private self and public life.
On its face, that proposition seems sensible. But who can be certain what
motivates oneself, much less another? If we hypothesize a connection between
Kennedy?s pursuit of women and his recklessness in the Bay of Pigs
catastrophe, how do we explain his restraint with respect to Laos?"
course, Langum does not fail to detail Kunstler's public life. In fact, his
retelling is highly entertaining. I found myself reading some passages aloud
to anyone who would listen. Kunstler's public career encompassed many of the
most significant (or at least well-publicized) trials of the late 20th
century. While not the most radical lawyer of his era, he was at least the
best-known radical lawyer and was one of the best attorneys around at
putting on a good show for "his public." More than that, however, The
Most Hated Lawyer in America begins to fill a gaping hole in the
historiography of the legal profession. Up to now, those hoping to
understand the philosophy and development of radical lawyering have had to
rely primarily upon sociological literature. Austin Sarat's and Stuart
Scheingold's edited volume, Cause Lawyering, is to date the best
analysis of the field. Others, such as Jerold Auerbach's Unequal Justice
(which is less interested in the radical fringes of the bar) and Jonathan
Black's edited volume Radical Lawyers: Their Role in the Movement and in
the Courts also explored what distinguishes radical lawyers from their
peers in the profession. Langum deserves credit as a pioneer in exploring
the practice of a lawyer who "adopted a completely, utilitarian,
instrumentalist view of law" (p. 165).
Langum's book draws on the experience of its protagonist to provide critical
information about the "birth" of radical lawyering in the 1960s. The book's
best chapter covers the Chicago Seven trial, the "personal rubicon" of
Kunstler's career (p. 126). The case stemmed from the protests and riots at
the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. On trial was a
loosely connected group of anti-war leaders accused of inciting the riots.
The defendants were less interested in countering the charges against them
than in using the courtroom as a forum for putting the United States'
Vietnam policy on trial while exposing the authoritarianism underlying the
government's actions at home and abroad. Langum quotes defendant David
the beginning the commitment to conduct a political trial meant conducting a
collective defense and having the defendants control the lawyers rather than
allowing them to control the line of defense on technical, legal grounds. We
wanted to bring our politics into the courtroom, not in the form of
arbitrary outbursts. We wanted not only to affirm what we had done and why
but to make it clear to any honest observer that the guilty parties were the
government and the system" (p. 105).
outset, Kunstler took a traditional approach to the defense. He did not
understand his clients' wishes and thus devoted his opening statement to
extolling the importance of the First Amendment. His clients were furious
and quickly demonstrated what they wanted. Kunstler soon caught on. The
results are well-known; the courtroom became a circus where the excesses of
government bias and zealotry were on full display. Chicago taught Kunstler
to question and undermine "the traditional structure and process of the
criminal procedure without challenging its fundamental political legitimacy"
(p. 153). In this chapter and those that follow, Langum does an excellent
job of illuminating the problematic aspects of radical lawyering, such as
the tension between defending a cause and defending a client (p. 123; p.
213), client selection (p. 166), and other conflicts with traditional
professional responsibility. This is one of the book's most valuable
contributions -- Langum gives an historical perspective to contemporary
debates in lawyering theory.
lessons carried Kunstler through the remainder of his career as he served as
counsel in many celebrated cases. In the 1960s he represented members of the
Black Panthers in conspiracy trials. He advocated for the Attica prisoners
in 1971. He defended American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier a few
years later. In the 1980s and 1990s, when there were fewer activist
movements demanding legal assistance, Kunstler continued to represent
unpopular clients, using their trials to expose government excess and
injustice. In this period his clients included Clayton Lonetree (a Marine
accused and convicted of espionage), Colin Ferguson (the man who killed six
people on the Long Island Railroad in 1993), John Gotti, El Sayyid Nossair
(acquitted of the charge that he assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane), and Sheikh
Omar Abdel-Rahman (accused of conspiracy in the World Trade Center bombing).
Although the book is rich in historical data, as stated above, I often
wished for more historical context to Langum's account. For instance, in
Langum's brief discussion of Kunstler's years at Columbia Law School, I was
left wondering in what ways Columbia's intellectual atmosphere may have
influenced the young Kunstler. Given that Columbia was a hotbed of Legal
Realism (though admittedly less so in the late 1940s than in the 1930s), I
wish that Langum had provided background and speculation about how Realism
(and his legal education) influenced Kunstler's ideas about law and legal
practice in the twentieth century (as Laura Kalman did in her biography of
Similarly, Langum could have done more to explain the origins of radical
lawyering in the 1960s. He discusses attorney Arthur Kinoy's influence on
Kunstler's approach to lawyering, but only mentions in passing that Kinoy's
ideas of practice were born in the labor movement. The roots of radical
legal practice are given short shrift. Such cursory treatment of historical
roots occurs throughout the book, which often focuses on its narrative
"present" while failing to demonstrate how past events contributed to those
result, a reader could finish the book with the impression that Kunstler's
ideas about lawyering sprung nearly fully formed from the 1960s and not as
the result of larger historical changes -- in politics, in legal theory, in
bar membership -- over the course of the twentieth century. Similarly,
Langum fails to set Kunstler's trajectory within larger trends in the legal
profession in the 1960s. In the early 1960s, hundreds of attorneys spent
time working in the South as part of the direct action phase of the Civil
Rights Movement. These attorneys learned (and developed) new approaches to
lawyering as a result of their interactions with civil rights workers. It
was the organizing "traditions" that many of these workers insisted upon
respecting that helped establish a "new" approach to lawyering in the 1960s:
"The traditional view of lawyers has been that they should remain
independent from their clients and not be too closely identified with them"
(p. 75). However, through their work in the South, Kunstler and others broke
down those barriers between lawyer and client. The lawyer's neutrality was
replaced by a professed interest in the goals of the client. Lawyers became
part of the movement rather than legal representatives of the movement. In
many situations, movement lawyers believed that "legal tactics should not be
based on the likelihood of success in court but on the effect of the legal
tactic on the activists, their motives, their interests, and their morale"
(p. 74). The legal system was not merely a forum for resolving disputes.
Rather, it became another battleground in a multi-front war against racism
and inequality. Courts were considered "a tool to gain the political
objectives of clients" (p. 75).
Following their conversion to this new approach to lawyering, thousands of
attorneys abandoned traditional practice. To be sure, only a small
percentage of those became full-fledged "radical" lawyers, but they
nonetheless were using the law to challenge the status quo and explicitly to
advance political ends. Between 1964 and 1974, the number of attorneys
engaged full-time in cause lawyering skyrocketed. Whereas only four
"public interest" firms existed in 1964, one survey counted 108 in operation
by 1975. In addition, thousands of attorneys worked under the aegis of
the federal Legal Services Program.
doesn't touch on these larger changes and where Kunstler fits within them.
Contextualization also might have illuminated how Kunstler was similar to
and differed from those in the relatively small community of radical lawyers
that flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Around the country, but
especially in major urban areas -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and
Boston -- lawyers not only challenged professional tradition in the
courtroom but in the office as well. Some were more radical than Kunstler,
who, as Langum shows, was never willing wholly to abandon some aspects of
bourgeois life. Groups such as Bar Sinister in Los Angeles sought to engage
in solely radical lawyering -- rather than mixing profit-making legal work
into their practice. Their office structures reflected their politics as
well . Few of these collectives remain in existence today. Why did they
fail while Kunstler's small practice thrived?
Kunstler, then, was in good company as he moved out of traditional legal
practice in the 1960s. His life story serves as a "prism of history" that
allows one to trace the development of what Sarat and Scheingold dub a
"deviant strain" of the legal profession through the life of one man. Langum
hasn't done that, and, as he points out in his introduction, that was not
his goal. What he has done, however, is to provide a valuable and lucid
account of the extraordinary legal career of a man who played a significant
role in challenging the law and the legal profession in the 1960s and
beyond; a man who was for many the embodiment of the leftist lawyer. In the
process it demonstrates that though he was much hated, William Kunstler also
loved and was loved by many in return. Langum captures the controversial
attorney's personality and life. It is an immensely enjoyable tale, almost
like talking to Kunstler himself.
Thomas M. Hilbink. "Filling the Void: The Lawyers' Constitutional Defense
Committee and the 1964 Freedom Summer." Undergraduate Honors Thesis,
Columbia University, 1993.
My favorite story came from Faith Seidenberg, a Syracuse attorney who is
famous in her own right for groundbreaking women's rights work. Seidenberg
was doing legal work for the Congress of Racial Equality, handling arrests
after a large protest in Syracuse. As Seidenberg told me: "I was loaded with
all these people and I was going crazy and my mother had called in the
middle of it and she said to me, 'Oh, you sound terrible. Is there anything
I can do for you?' And I said off the top of my head, 'Yes, get me William
Kunstler.' Hung up and you know, like the next day this guy calls me and he
says, 'I'm William Kunstler,' and I practically went through the desk. I
said, 'Oh, no,' and he says, 'Your mother called me.' So that's how it got
started." Faith Seidenberg, interview by author, tape recording, New York,
NY, 5 October 1992. Interview on file with the Columbia Oral History
William Kunstler, interview by author, tape recording, New York, NY, 6
October 1992. Interview on file with the Columbia Oral History Research
Richard A. Posner. "Judicial Biography," New York University Law Review
70 (1995): 502, 503.
"Micro" information is often available to biographers through interviews
with the subject (if still alive), oral history (if not), or through
interviews with those close to the subject. In Kunstler's case, he left
behind two memoirs filled with personal anecdotes as well as innumerable
profiles and interviews (on which Langum relies heavily). Langum also
collected information through interviews with those who were close to
Kunstler, both personally and professionally.
Laura Kalman. "Review Essay: The Power of Biography," Law & Social
Inquiry 23 (1998): 479, 491.
Austin Sarat and Stuart Scheingold, eds., Cause Lawyering (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1998); Jerold S. Auerbach, Unequal Justice:
Lawyers and Social Change in Modern America (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1976); Jonathan Black, ed., Radical Lawyers: Their Role in the
Movements and in the Courts (New York: Avon, 1971).
See, e.g., Derrick Bell. "Serving Two Masters: Integration
Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation," Yale Law
Journal 85 (1976): 470; Gerald P. Lopez, Rebellious Lawyering: one
Chicano's vision of progressive law practice (Boulder, CO: Westview
Press, 1992); William B. Rubenstein. "Divided We Litigate: Addressing
Disputes among Group Members and Lawyers in Civil Rights Campaigns," Yale
Law Journal 106 (1997): 1623-1681.
Laura Kalman, Abe Fortas: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University
This term is used by Austin Sarat, Stuart Scheingold, et al. in their recent
(non-historical) study of the field. It is unclear how such attorneys
self-identified at the time. See Sarat and Scheingold, eds., Cause
Nan Aron, Liberty and Justice for All: Public Interest Law in the 1980s
and Beyond (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989).
Marlise James, The People's Lawyers (New York: Holt, Rinehart and
Call Number: KF373.K8 L36 1999
Kunstler, William Moses, 1919-
Citation: Thomas Hilbink . "Review of David J. Langum, William M. Kunstler:
The Most Hated Lawyer in America," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, May, 2000. URL:
“David J. Langum…has done a meticulous job of combining
oral histories, archival research, legal documents, and Kunstler’s own
correspondence and personal writings to construct an absorbing and
much-needed account of the famed radical lawyer…that, while sympathetic, is
also critical and circumspect…[The] finished product is a page-turner, a
grand achievement, presenting Kunstler as a flawed giant.”
Andrew Hunt, review of William M. Kunstler: The
Most Hated Lawyer in America, by David J. Langum, The Journal of
American History 88 (January 2001): 310-311.