An American Editor

January 4, 2010

Louis Brandeis: A Life

I am currently reading the biography of one of our greatest U.S. Supreme Court justices and lawyers, Louis Brandeis. Melvin Urofsky’s Louis Brandeis: A Life is available in both print and ebook form. This is the biography to read if you want to discover what a lawyer should be.

Brandeis didn’t grow up poor, so this isn’t a rags-to-riches story like the story of current justice Clarence Thomas. But it is the story of a man of principle, a lawyer who was often the lawyer of the situation rather than of the person. It is also the story of a man whose introduction to law occurred as how to learn law was on the cusp of changing, and of a man who introduced a different form of advocacy — a form that lawyers today do not practice, that is, being lawyer to the situation — which if they did, would enhance our society greatly.

Brandeis was a man of great intellect with a burning desire to understand both sides fully, something that we cannot always claim for our current justices. It was not that Brandeis didn’t have blind spots, but that he had a sense of society and a person’s role in it. For example, he was opposed to monopolies not because they were monopolies but because they were big, which he believed lead to inefficiency and thus societal harm. Brandeis combined great intellect, a devotion to detail, and a sense of social good in his law practice and when sitting as a justice. Brandeis wanted and needed to understand relationships in depth, not just the surface understanding that is so common today.

If you read but two biographies in your lifetime, this should be one of them (the other should be Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame). Brandeis lived in a time of dynamic change, the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, and was a great contributor to the life subsequent generations enjoyed. His efforts and his approach to law practice made him unique among Americans, especially at a time of economic upheavel. Urofsky’s well-written biography makes Brandeis approachable by readers; no knowledge of law required.

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