by David Kairys. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008. 442pp. Cloth. $70.00. ISBN: 9780472116386. Paper. $24.95. ISBN: 9780472033102.

Reviewed by Patrick Schmidt and Cali Cope-Kasten, Department of Political Science, Macalester College. Email: schmidtp [at] and ccopekas [at]


It is rare in law to find an author who transcends genres, and much rarer in the same book. David Kairys – known by many readers of this review for his work for academic audiences, if only for the major THE POLITICS OF LAW: A PROGRESSIVE CRITIQUE – certainly possesses enough war stories from over two decades of active public interest legal work to justify a memoir.

What kind of book should it be? Revealingly, each of the blurbs on the cover hint at different genres. Given his passion and his wide-ranging experience in the field, Kairys has the platform for what Steve Lopez (Los Angeles Times columnist) terms “a prayer for social justice and a call to conscience” – perhaps even a legal manifesto. With that experience, if taken as participant observation research, Kairys also has the material for a powerful academic-styled account on the possibilities and limits of progressive legal advocacy. Perhaps that is what U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III aimed at with his vapid remark that Kairys’ “compelling book properly explains the vital role that civil rights attorneys play in our system of justice.” It helps that Kairys’ fight for justice occurs in one of the more corrupt – hence interesting – cities in America, allowing his memoir to serve as a legitimate contribution to the historical record. William Marimow (editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer) accordingly praises the “spellbinding tale” of “how [Kairys] helped make history in the city of brotherly love.” Martha Minow, too, recommends the book to “anyone interested in American social history,” but in noting how the memoir “reads like a suspense novel,” she makes a nod to Kairys’ eye for yet another genre, that of legal thriller, with the hallmark elements of a powerful and sometimes evil politico-legal system, and a crusading lawyer whose work enmeshes him in the lives of his clients. In the end, perhaps Cornel West’s extravagant praise for “this marvelous book . . . Kairys’ gift to us” best captures the sense that many will find value in reading PHILADELPHIA FREEDOM: MEMOIR OF A CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYER, even if one does not quite know for what purpose to read it.

PHILADELPHIA FREEDOM is a memoir, not a mechanical autobiography, so it comes as only a mild shock when Kairys hits the ground running – or more precisely, driving – in the midst of what he hails as the most important case of the book, one that is not actually tried until Part II. A cloak-and-dagger meeting under a Philadelphia bridge, with every eye on the lookout for FBI agents, Kairys’ choice for a brief introductory chapter declares his intention to speed readers along at the [*159] pace of crime fiction. Rich descriptions of Philadelphia neighborhoods, the recurring backdrop for his cases, make their debut in the first two sentences when Kairys begins with shades of Bulwer-Lytton that, “It was an overcast evening in late February 1972, and mist rose above the Delaware River as I crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge, the ornate suspension bridge between downtown Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. As I slowed for the tollbooth on the Camden side, I could see the waterfront and the idle Campbell’s Soup factories” (p.1). Witty and exciting, the introduction makes good use of its four pages to draw these readers into the three parts of the book that lay beyond.

Kairys does return to his legal beginnings – Day 1 in his first legal job – in Part I, recounting his early days as a trial lawyer in the local public defender’s office. Somewhere between his musings on the angle of a legal pad sitting on his desk, and the rookie’s bold challenges to the standard operating procedures for public defenders in city courtrooms, Kairys begins to find his authentic voice. The world of 1960s justice provides a compelling setting for a young lawyer ready for a cause, and he soon finds one, resulting in a marvelous tale about his first against-the-odds victory fighting a problematic extradition to Georgia of an African-American resident of Philadelphia. Kairys never looks back, and the grand stage for this Philadelphia lawyer is all the more interesting because it is populated with distinctive characters like a young DA, Arlen Specter, and an even younger Assistant District Attorney, Ed Rendell, blazing their respective paths to become U.S. Senator and Pennsylvania governor. In exceptionally clear prose, and with a light touch for legal vocabulary that makes the criminal process approachable to any student, Kairys graduates from interviews to bail hearings, to preliminary hearings and pretrial motions, until Part I ends with his move into private practice.

Though each part of the book can be read for enjoyment and interest, Part I must be regarded as one of the most engaging and useful anecdotal introductions to the criminal process available for students. The coverage of actual case material is too sparse for very close legal study and the reflections on the legal system’s weaknesses are perhaps too specific to interest the wider public, but Kairys finds the balance in his keen display of creativity and strategic acumen that brought changes to the machinery of urban justice. The ebullient successes of these first 136 pages are balanced with reflection on his prejudices and commitments to the legal status quo. He supplies spare autobiographical background on a need-to-know basis, such as when he battles to understand his interactions with the black community in the late 1960s from his personal background. The basic plot of confidence versus self-doubt – the worries that he “might not live up to . . . expectations” (p.21) – might be too clich├ęd without the compelling critical perspective that Kairys’ lends to the young “do good” lawyer of his youth. Naturally, writing a memoir in retrospect, one would expect Kairys to speak with a unified voice, to show that from his start in the field to his finish in academe – a law professor at Temple University – he has been his own man, as unabashedly critical as necessary. But there is complexity in that portrait, [*160] particularly of a strategic nature, such as when he observes how “a satisfying moral stance” (p.89) threatened a loss in effectiveness within the organizational imperatives of urban courts, so well described by social scientists. There are numerous other targets of his criticism, including the organizational imperatives of the public defender’s office, and his colleagues in the law (such as his distaste for “lawyer banter” p.31). The clear depictions of trial preparation and proceedings, combined with his raw descriptions of the life and work of a young lawyer, would be excellent for undergraduate use in the study of criminal justice and for anyone considering a calling to the legal profession.

Those looking for the bigger fish in this memoir will look ahead to Part II, as we find a more confident and experienced Kairys who has begun to find his place in the world in the 1970s. It is here that the system’s challenges loom much larger and the villainy extends deeper. Chapter Five, the first chapter in Part II, chronicles a case in which Kairys represents two Philadelphia firemen against the Philadelphia police. Now in the ascent to the peak of his career as a practitioner, Kairys is trying bigger cases than ever, including ultimately the famous case of the Camden 28 opponents of the Vietnam War and the draft. Chapter-to-chapter, these successes bring him further afield, including geographically, and have him facing new injustices in new venues.

Unfortunately, two criticisms of Part II emerge. First, the storyline of the book loses the coherence that animated Part I, as the proximity of these cases to the height of Kairys’ career may be the most the chapters have in common. As a civil rights attorney with growing fame but still happy for the work, Kairys wins some important and recognizable cases with an interesting range of legal issues. The sympathetic reader will note that abuses of the Presidential war-making power, police brutality, and governmental corruption do not seem at all out of vogue thirty years later, so it is easy to begin each chapter. The lack of continuity between these chapters may, upon a deeper reading, suggest something of the challenges facing the public interest attorney: too many targets, perhaps an inability to define an overarching strategy, or even the absence of a definition for “success” in the war if not the battles.

A second criticism that emerges out of Part II is a lack of context for the battles he does recount, with memoir proving the weaker cousin of biography. As much as he has endeavored to piece together the records of his practice, the easiest things to bring to light are his present views and, by definition, his strongest memories of the trials. Kairys’ account of the Camden 28 trial, in particular, supplements the portrait one can find elsewhere, but here more than anywhere the reader may want him to frame the soaring rhetoric of his closing arguments with a wider social and political history of his advocacy. The case, which continues to attract interest today, receives parity of treatment to the cases in other chapters, where it might have been given much more. (On a more minor note in this chapter, it was Andrew Hamilton, not Alexander, who set the stage for modern jury nullification with the closing arguments in the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger.) The reader need not take Kairys entirely [*161] on trust. For Chapter Eight, in which Kairys reaches the U.S. Supreme Court as counsel for Dr. Benjamin Spock (GREER v. SPOCK, 1976), the diligent reader can easily assess Kairys’ effectiveness as an advocate by delving into the transcript and audio recording of the oral arguments from the internet.

Part III continues what is constant throughout: his eloquence and verve as a writer. Rarely will a reader find a legal memoir beginning a story, as Kairys does in the first chapter of this part, with a line like “I could smell pot smoke wafting out of the kitchen, and I remember feeling particularly relaxed and content that evening,” as he describes receiving a phone call that brought him a suit against the CIA (p.265). Having earned a substantial reputation as a first-rate civil rights attorney, by Part III of his narrative Kairys possesses substantial discretion over case selection, leading to some focus on the particular interests of his later career but also showing the idiosyncratic nature of his practice. Nevertheless, the entire book provides a unique look at the behind-the-scenes politics of law, and Part III offers some of the best examples of it. The power of Coca-Cola, the strategies of the Philadelphia Electric Company, the manipulation of facts and legal loopholes in gun violence and manufacturing, and a crack in the mysterious wall around CIA practices are glimpses into the legal trade unparalleled by most accounts of the legal profession. The cases themselves are consistently unusual, and the book never regains the unified narrative that it has in Part I, but the final part has the substance on the issues, such as nuclear power and gun safety, to give the kind of context lacking in the middle section.

Overall, PHILADELPHIA FREEDOM proves an engaging and well-written tour through a stream of fascinating cases, from a legal career that displays both variety and significance. Though he continues some involvement in litigation, Kairys stops the memoir somewhat abruptly at his entry into an academic career in 1990. Kairys brings the reader up to the present day in a matter of a few paragraphs, though in that light the Epilogue he provides – a brief autobiography and attempt to assess the significance of his work – seems oddly out of place. That effort may be beside the point: the lasting significance he can hope for from this memoir is what others take from his passion and his experiences. It is unfortunate that, running almost four hundred pages, Kairys’ window into the world of a progressive lawyer may be too much for classroom use. Perhaps he might have recalled Elton John’s lyrics in the song with the same title as this book: “the less I say the more my work gets done.” Yet, despite the criticisms of this review, Kairys has accomplished in PHILADELPHIA FREEDOM what few people (and even fewer law professors) can: he has written of things he has done about which it is worth reading.

Kairys, David, ed. 1998. THE POLITICS OF LAW: A PROGRESSIVE CRITIQUE (3d ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

GREER v. SPOCK, 424 U.S. 828 (1976).

© Copyright 2009 by the authors, Patrick Schmidt and Cali Cope-Kasten.