The Paper Chase (1973)

“What I mean is, you really mean something to me, and your class really meant something to me.”

“What is your name?”

I never saw The Paper Chase before law school.  And it’s a good thing, too — otherwise I might have turned down Harvard.  No, for reals, I’m thrilled I never ended up there because I got to be the poster-child for the IIT website instead.

Prettttty cleverrrrr.

Timothy Bottoms plays the mustachioed man-child protagonist, James T. Hart, a 1L at Harvard Law who looks like just the type of guy you’d avoid sitting next to at all costs.

It's probably his eyes.

Hart’s first day of law school doesn’t go so well.  During Contracts, old Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) calls on him to explain the facts of Hawkins v. McGee, remembered by law students as a lesson in why you should never give in to your hand-surgeon’s request for just a smidge of the skin on your chest (it rhymes!)  Totally unprepared and embarrassed, Hart runs straight for the nearest bathroom to throw up, because that’s exactly what everyone does in law school when they get called on and don’t know the answer.

You've been warned.

The fact that Hart came to class totally unprepared and looks like Jeffrey Dahmer’s dad doesn’t stop the other students in his dorm (Harvard Law, apparently, has a six room dorm) from begging him to join their study group.  I never really got into the whole study group thing in law school.  I was far more concerned with the consistency of my bulleting than actual exam prep.  Top of the class?  No.  But you should have seen my bulleting.

Of course, Professor Kingsfield steals the show, and I’m pretty sure that’s the point of the movie.  Even Hart — who is pretty unimpressed by the history of the school and its student body — can’t seem to shake the awesomeness of the old contracts professor.  He decides to focus on Kingsfield’s class, even raising his hand to volunteer answers during class.  That’s pretty a much a cardinal sin in law school.

Back stabber!

Kingsfield, of course, recognizes Hart’s talents and devotion, but never breaks character.  When he rewards Hart with the opportunity to do research for his treatise and Hart is unable to complete the assignment on time, Kingsfield teaches him that his class preparation only bought him an opportunity, nothing more.  Hart’s upset, but he gets it.

The Paper Chase covers a lot of law school motifs — the Socratic method, study groups, pressure, drop outs, swimming in Speedos (wait, that may have just been a 70s theme), outlines, girlfriends, exams — and that alone makes it a complete law school movie.  As a law movie, though, I think it works because of the professor-student relationship.  Seek out a mentor — preferably someone you respect, or maybe just someone you can’t help but admire.  Just don’t expect him/her to remember your name.

Summary Judgment: Now that I’ve seen the quintessential law school movie, I’ve got to ask: just how old are the people at Harvard Law?  I mean, Kent had plenty of non-traditional students, but just about every student in this movie looked like they’d been through law school sixteen times.  John Houseman is hardly the oldest guy in a classroom with Edward Herrmann.  Also, I’ll never understand how people used to outline before computers.  Think of all the bulleting they missed out on.


Filed under 1970-79, Law School

10 responses to “The Paper Chase (1973)

  1. Don’t ask anyone what we did before computers. We can’t remember much, but the smell of Bic pens comes back to me.

  2. David, I sat in front of you in torts or contracts 1L year and my name was Ms. Clennon then but I am married now. I saw the ATL article a while back and wondered if any thing has worked out since?
    I have a fellowship which ends in May so the terror is setting in.

    Also, I am using unemployment to blog about something as far away from law school as possible, food:

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