IN THE RING: THE TRIALS OF A WASHINGTON LAWYER, by Robert S. Bennett. NY: Random House, 2008. 400pp. Paper $27.50. ISBN: 9780307394439.
Reviewed by Joshua S. Sellers, The Law School and the Department of Political Science, University of Chicago. Email: jss [at] uchicago.edu.
American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser once stated: “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” Such is clearly the case for lawyers, and none more so than Robert S. Bennett, a prominent partner with the Washington, DC office of international legal powerhouse Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. With forty years of experience to his name—all inside the Beltway—Bennett makes the short list of highly coveted legal problem solvers. In his memoir (Bennett makes clear at the outset that he has not written an autobiography), IN THE RING: THE TRIALS OF A WASHINGTON LAWYER, Bennett provides snapshots of his most notable clients and cases, including his representation of former President Bill Clinton, former World Bank President and US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and martyred New York Times journalist Judith Miller.
Before recounting his many legal successes, Bennett devotes a fair amount of manuscript to his childhood in Brooklyn, a period upon which he reflects fondly. It is here that we gain some insight into the origins of his instinct for competition, as well as the moral principles that guide him. As the eldest of two boys (Bennett is the older brother of conservative commentator and former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett), Bennett assumed a protective posture at an early age—a posture that was often manifested in the form of fisticuffs. In fact, Bennett reports fighting so regularly as a youth that his mother and stepfather attempted to bribe him with “a nickel a day for every day [he] did not get in a fight at school” (p.13). His pugilistic instincts foreshadowed a life of professional combativeness.
Despite his feistiness, Bennett describes a comfortable childhood, stating: “We were not Horatio Alger figures. Bill and I had all that we needed—and most of what we wanted—but most important, we were raised in a family that impressed upon us the importance of hard work, personal honesty, and integrity” (p.11). Bennett implicitly attributes the acquisition of these traits to his strong Catholic upbringing. He proudly recalls his time spent at Holy Cross Boys School, Brooklyn Prep, and eventually, Georgetown University. It was at Brooklyn Prep that Bennett first discovered his gift for competitive debating, the talent that would ultimately define his career.
Bennett graduated from Georgetown in 1961 intent upon becoming a lawyer. He initially attended the University of Virginia Law School, before transferring to Georgetown Law Center. Bennett’s first major break came when influential lobbyist Thomas G. Corcoran (“Tommy the Cork”) hired him as a summer law clerk, a position that set him on his way. [*227] Corcoran served as a mentor of sorts, inviting Bennett to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, encouraging him to pursue an advanced legal degree at Harvard Law School, and brokering his clerkship with Corcoran’s sibling, Howard F. Corcoran, on the US District Court for the District of Columbia (this court was subsequently replaced by the Superior Court of the District of Columbia under the Court Reorganization Act).
Bennett sharpened his trial lawyer instincts as a clerk, observing strategies that both succeeded and failed. He utilized these insights in his subsequent work as an assistant US attorney. Like all trial lawyers, Bennett developed his personal argument style on the fly, first prosecuting cases in the Court of General Sessions, and eventually in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
With this background in place, Bennett’s personal narrative moves to the private sector.
He practiced at Hogan & Hartson before making a lateral move to Dunnells, Duvall & Porter, where he was given the freedom to build a white-collar defense practice. There is no question that this was a critical juncture in Bennett’s life. Despite the ubiquity of white-collar practice groups today, such was not the case in 1975. Bennett acknowledges his fortuity: “I knew I had the skills, but also I was very lucky because the post-Watergate scandal mentality was taking hold and there was an increasing demand for white-collar trial lawyers. Most big firms did not offer these services, but found that more and more of their corporate clients were getting embroiled in matters that required the skills of a criminal lawyer” (pp.90–91).
Bennett’s early successes defending defense contractors solidified his reputation as a reliable advocate. In a short time, the impressiveness of his client list would grow to include leading corporate figures and government officials. Bennett moved his entire white-collar group to Skadden in 1990.
The bulk of his text chronicles his highest-profile cases, often supplemented with detailed trial transcripts of his cross-examinations. These sections are likely to impress fellow trial lawyers or those familiar with trial practice. To the layperson, the skillfulness may be lost.
In fact, much of Bennett’s book is unlikely to absorb general audiences. With some notable exceptions including the aforementioned President Clinton and Judith Miller, and perhaps Caspar Weinberger and publicly tarnished former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, many of Bennett’s clients will be unfamiliar to readers removed from the DC legal and political scene (presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain is briefly mentioned as a figure in the Keating Five scandal). And in today’s culture of “behind-the-scenes” political expose (e.g., Clarke 2004; Crawford-Greenburg 2007; Woodward 2007), Bennett’s case descriptions are comparatively mild and are not presented to provoke shock or surprise. Unlike journalists or government officials who have since resigned, Bennett remains a practicing attorney—an attorney who relies on reputation and fair dealing to acquire clients of all stripes (not to mention [*228] confidentiality agreements). Those interested in partisan polemics should look elsewhere.
None of this detracts from what constitutes a highly readable overview of a great life in the law. Most lawyers can only dream of the opportunity to represent the figures Bennett has not only advocated on behalf of, but also often befriended. When the government seized the infamous Zapruder film without due compensation, Bennett got the call.
Many will agree with him that the media—“the scandal machine” as Bennett describes it— plays a large role in shaping public trials. Bennett laments the trend toward overzealous muckraking: “Washington, D.C., is not only tough but also mean, a town where the practice of personal destruction has been elevated to an art form” (p.223). This characteristic is on full display throughout the book, and much of Bennett’s talent seemingly lies in his ability to effectively massage and appease the Fourth Estate.
Through it all, Bennett has preserved his reputation for honesty and integrity. His bipartisan client list attests to that fact. He reveals no intention of retiring anytime soon, and closes his memoir by claiming that he “will continue to work as long as [he] is wanted and can function as [he] do[es] today” (p.363).
Washington, DC’s legal culture is distinct. Unlike New York City, the lawyer’s equivalent of Hobbes’ state of nature, DC provides a unique landscape upon which lawyers frequently traverse political corridors and engage political figures. Robert Bennett’s memoir, IN THE RING, outlines a paradigmatic example of life, in the vernacular, as a Washington lawyer.
Clarke, Richard. 2004. AGAINST ALL EMEMIES: INSIDE AMERICA’S WAR ON TERROR. Free Press.
Crawford-Greenburg, Jan. 2007. SUPREME CONFLICT: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE STRUGGLE FOR CONTROL OF THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT. New York: The Penguin Press.
Woodward, Bob. 2007. STATE OF DENIAL: BUSH AT WAR, PART III. Simon & Schuster.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Joshua S. Sellers.