Doing Justice

Recommendation: There are far worse legal memoirs out there

Read with: A Manhattan

Where to read: Do you have a leather armchair handy? Now is the time to use it

In brief: Doing Justice is the perfect example of the emerging memoir/”I’m actually talking about how Trump is a lying liar who’s destroying our democracy” genre. It’s a pretty good read, both for lawyers and people who want to understand slightly more how the legal system works.


I read this (quite) a while ago but was prompted to get my proverbial skates on when a friend who normally takes great delight in reading things before me recommended it. For the record, I got there first.

Preet Bharara was United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009 until 2017 when he was fired by, you guessed it, President Obstruction himself. He now hosts an excellent podcast and hangs around at several universities being generally learned.

The superficial point of Doing Justice is to explain how the process of putting a case together operates – from the initial investigatory phase to evidence collection and collation and finally to proving it beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law. The book is structured in accordance with those phases and he spends a fair bit of time giving “worked examples” in the context of financial crime, terrorism and the mob (being the typical areas of interest for the Southern District). The latter in particular serves as a device for exploring some of the moral dilemmas faced by prosecutors, in this case plea bargaining and the use of cooperating witnesses. He also spends some time attempting to defend the failure of the SDNY to prosecute financiers in the wake of the GFC* and includes a large section on confirmation and unconscious bias and the importance of second-guessing. Also, this should go without saying but the American prison system is fucked.

All that said, the whole thing is a very thinly veiled attack on Trump. The section on organised crime and the tactics used to flip low level operators is basically the “how we got Michael Cohen” playbook. More broadly, Bharara’s central concept is that American political and public debate shows an insufficient regard for truth. Almost echoing The Newsroom‘s quip that American voters need a lawyer, he makes a case for expanding the principles underpinning the rules of evidence and courtroom argument to the public sphere. It’s an argument I have a lot of time for – if you assume that decisions can only be as good as the information they’re based on, rigorous standards of proof and an insistence on fact-based argument in public debate and public policy is central to the proper functioning of a democracy.

If you enjoy legal memoirs, this is an extremely creditable addition to the genre. If you enjoy someone validating your feeling that Trump is an appalling excuse for both a President and a human being, you will probably find this a decent read. And if you enjoy neither, you’re probably the kind of person who should read it.

*I’m not an expert in US corporate law so I’d have liked a bit more explanation of the legal issues with bringing cases.

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