Denver Bar Association
October 2013
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The Paper Chase Revisited, Part 1

by Marshall Snider

S


eems like only yesterday that the best (and perhaps only) law school movie of all time was released. But it has been 40 years. The Paper Chase is the 1973 movie detailing the at times gut-wrenching exploits of first year Harvard Law School student James Hart (portrayed by Timothy Bottoms). This film focuses on Hart’s obsession with his contracts professor, Professor Kingsfield, brilliantly played by John Houseman (those of you of a certain age will remember Houseman as a pitchman for the Smith- Barney securities firm, proclaiming in somber tones that "We make money the old fashioned way; we earn it").

Kingsfield is the classic, crusty, old-school Socratic method law professor, and he places his first year contracts class in what Hart describes as "a state of constant fear". The students in his class are fixated on grades. They are told that it doesn’t matter that you went to Harvard, all that matters is your grades; grades determine salaries and futures. The pressure on this fictional class of law students is understandably immense.

As someone who went to law school in about the same era I related instantly to Hart and his classmates. The movie’s portrayal of the first year of law school was a reflection of my own experience, with professors delighting in embarrassing students by leading them down garden paths strewn with apparent logic, only to have the students’ conclusions shredded by the professors’ superior command of the facts and the law.

Hart decides to pit his intellect against Kingsfield’s, with occasional positive results, but mostly disappointment. Kingsfield calls on the unprepared Hart the first day of class and the experience so unnerves him that as soon as the class is over Hart tosses his lunch. After that frightening introduction to Professor Kingsfield’s world Hart will not volunteer in class until he has spent an entire weekend studying the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company case (I am sure you all remember that one).

At one point Hart recognizes that he can’t beat Kingsfield at Kingsfield’s game and, for a time, he gives up. In what to me is the most memorable scene in the movie Kingsfield calls on Hart, who says he prefers to pass: "I have nothing relevant to say", Hart informs Kingsfield. "When I do, I’ll raise my hand". Kingsfield calls Hart to the front of the room and hands him a coin: "Here’s a dime", Kingsfield says. "Call your mother and tell her there’s serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer". As Hart leaves the room, he pauses at the door and says "You are a son of a bitch, Kingsfield". To which the professor replies: "That is the most intelligent thing you have said today. You may take your seat".

Although I never called a law school professor a son of a bitch (to his face), several of my law school experiences tracked those of the first year students in The Paper Chase. Like them, our class created study groups to assist each other in various courses. Hart’s study group includes a cross-section of dysfunctional law students. There is Brooks, with a photographic memory but a total inability to analyze anything. He gets so stressed out by his inability to deal with the intellectual rigors of his first year classes that he tries to kill himself.

Anderson is the opposite, an automaton who unemotionally analyzes everything to death, statistically determining how much time each student needs to put in on each subject outline in order to maximize the overall grade point average of the study group. This insufferable quality earns him the wonderful nickname of "robot pimp". The group also includes O’Connor, reticent and mild mannered to the point of not being there. He eventually leaves the group, virtually unnoticed. The supremely obnoxious "Liberty" Bell is also part of this cabal. Bell decides that his outlines are so good that he won’t share them with anyone. He is promptly ejected from the study group.

As this dysfunctional group implodes, the only members left standing are Hart and Ford, the patrician scion of generations of Harvard trained lawyers. Although he always wears bow ties in an era of long-haired, bearded and blue-jeaned students, Ford is a good guy and the only one Hart can work with. Just before final exams Ford and Hart check into a hotel room to get away from the chaos of the law student dorm. This arrangement rang true with me; a law school classmate and I also checked into a hotel for a weekend as we helped each other prepare for two exams.

To complicate the Hart-Kingsfield dynamic, Hart commences an intimate relationship with Kingsfield’s daughter Susan, initially unaware of who she is. Once he discovers her lineage they break up, reconnect, and repeat as Hart struggles with who she is, as well as the difficulty he has in balancing law school and a girlfriend. For her part, Susan tries to love Hart as she struggles with her disdain for any of the poor schmucks Professor Kingsfield has turned into grade-groveling eunuchs.

When I saw this movie in a theater in 1973 members of the audience groaned at various points (as did I). These were the lawyers and law students in the audience, for whom specific agonies of being a law student hit close to home. Reviewing the movie in 2013 I wondered if the first year of law school was still as stressful, and the professors still as mean, as was the case 40 years ago. So, I decided to go back to law school, at least for a couple of days. I sat in on two first year contracts classes at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and compared them with the first year classes of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Look for a review of those classes in next month’s issue of The Docket. D

 

Marshall Snider is a former Colorado administreative law judge who works as an arbitrator and mediator. He may be reached at msniderarb@comcast.net.


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