Biography of a Child Law Prodigy

Alton Jay Ferris (born August 6, 1995) is an attorney and child law prodigy. He got his start in the legal profession at age 4 when his father—a textbook editor for West Publishing—brought home a civil procedure treatise. Ferris became mesmerized by the applied logic of the rules and began to read anything related to the law, often asking his father to bring additional books home from work. At age 5 he pawned the family piano in order to purchase subscriptions to various treatises and to buy online legal periodical subscriptions. He also made a game of pointing out legal errors in many of the texts that his father brought home to him, circling them and making notations with red crayon.

By age seven, citing irreconcilable problems in the text of several rule books, Ferris rewrote four of the major rules of criminal procedure, submitting them through his parents to the Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure. The committee adopted many of his suggested changes, but other changes were set aside because the committee indicated that “the proposed changes are ahead of the time and could cause considerable confusion to ordinary attorneys.” In his proposals, however, Ferris had anticipated future disputes over habeas corpus and federal jurisdiction, prompting several appellate courts to comment that the proposals—which had since gained a wide audience—provided “welcome guidance” on particularly complex subjects.

In 2003, Ferris’s parents sought more professional tutelage and engaged Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe as their son’s private tutor. Tribe exhausted his ability to teach Ferris within five months and, when Tribe inexplicably fell ill with a lengthy illness in 2004, Ferris ended up teaching Tribe’s constitutional law course for the rest of the semester, garnering positive reviews from law students, who said his “clarity and wit” about U.S. v. Carolene Products was refreshing and enlightening.

By age nine Ferris had helped to rewrite significant portions of Prosser on Torts. He also began—under the pseudonym of Jackson Davis III—to consult with emerging democracies on their adoption of civil and criminal institutions. His early consulting work on implementing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Report would later earn him recognition as one of the foremost authorities on historical revisionism, restorative justice, and international conflicts of law. While in South Africa, he also learned Xhosa and Afrikaans, adding to his growing repertoire of over a dozen foreign languages.

Following a brief stint at Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 2009 after three semesters, Ferris co-wrote large portions of the third Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers. A dispute with the American Law Institute and two of his co-authors, however, resulted in his name being withheld from the final published text. Ferris subsequently rewrote his own portions and self-published it as an eBook, generating more than two million downloads and successfully bringing the laws that govern attorneys into popular culture. While he spun a successful Broadway play off the book, Ferris declined a leading role in the production and ultimately gave a TED Talk on the subject, “Why People Hate Lawyers and Why I’m One of Them.” The TED Talk has received more than 17 million views on TED since its debut in 2010.

At age 14, Ferris made his first appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Travelers Indemnity v. Bailey. His oral argument skills so impressed Justice Stephen G. Breyer that Breyer requested on the record that Ferris clerk for him in the fall, which Ferris later privately declined. In the next year, Ferris made four more appearances on major cases before the Supreme Court. During oral argument in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, after a long and somewhat tense colloquy with six of the nine justices, Justice Antonin Scalia famously and embarrassingly quipped, “I guess I stand corrected, Mr. Ferris.” Though it has since been refuted, those in attendance at the Court during oral argument in Citizens United v. FEC claimed that Justice Sonia Sotomayor muttered “I want to have his baby.” Ironically, the Citizens United case was his only publicly known litigation loss.

Ferris announced his retirement from Supreme Court work at age 16 and began developing a successful transactional practice in New York. His clients currently include most of the Fortune 100 companies, who seek his advice on complex contractual and patent issues. Ferris is known to have an innate ability to look at a contract and immediately point out its inconsistencies and ambiguities. In one famous case, he glanced at a contract in front of him and added a single comma to the agreement. The addition ultimately led to a windfall for his client of more than $600 million.

Ferris currently appears as a legal commentator on MSNBC and has been a regular guest on numerous television crime show dramas, including Law & Order, White Collar, and Numb3rs, where he typically plays himself. He resides in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where he can be seen riding a fixed wheel bike and, on occasion, playing in a local band with Citizen Cope. A spoken word album, featuring Eminem, Jay-Z, and Lou Reed reciting portions of the federal rules of civil procedure, is expected for release in early 2014.

Gregory Luce is the editor of Bitter Lawyer. He creates stuff and writes various columns, including Legal Crap My Kids Ask Me, Ask a Futurist, and Postcards from Lawyers.

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