Best Film Depicting Law School – The Paper Chase

Best Film Depicting Law School – The Paper Chase

Best Film Depicting Law School – The Paper Chase

Arguably, there are simply not that many movies about lawyers that depict their experiences in law school prior to practicing law. Perhaps because films with Paul Newman as a sole practitioner suing doctors defended by big firm-lawyer James Mason in The Verdict or Spencer Tracy as a judge hearing cases of heinous war crimes in Judgment At Nuremberg are just a bit more compelling. Spencer Tracy was also in one of the most interesting films about lawyers, playing a character patterned after Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind.

The Paper Chase always seems to be at the top of the list since it represents some true portrayal of law school, at least, as it was in past decades. In contrast, Legally Blonde, a movie that this author has not seen represents the other end of the reality spectrum. An enjoyable romp that hardly depicts the realities of law school, or so I hear.

The Paper Chase (1973)

In this drama directed by James Bridges, James T. Hart (Timothy Bottoms) is a first-year law student desperate to receive the approval of Harvard Contracts professor, Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., played by John Houseman, who reprised his Oscar-winning role as Kingsfield for four seasons on television.

The most interesting part of the film is its portrayal of the demands of Harvard Law School, where reputations seem to be built and shattered in a single, painstaking class. The film features several all-too-familiar scenes involving the Socratic method and the famous line: “You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

A faculty member at Marquette Law School screened the film to one of his classes and the following were a summary of their responses. Some thought The Paper Chase was a largely accurate portrayal of the realities of legal education. One student shared her experience of standing up for 40 minutes while a Socratic professor destroyed both her ego and confidence. One student said she regretted her legal education was not more like the one portrayed in The Paper Chase.

Other students interpreted The Paper Chase as a positive portrayal of legal education, as a suggestion that “law school could and should toughen students and separate those who ‘had it’ from the mere posers.”

One viewer wrote, ”the Kingsfield character is a celebration of a certain precise intellectualism which is a helpful lawyer trait. That Kingsfield inspires Hart to develop the trait is an important message…  a whole person (and a whole lawyer) needs more.”

One law professor, Ed Fallone, opined:

“From the point of those of us who are law professors, it makes sense to criticize the oppressive law school environment reflected in the movie. However, from the point of view of current law students, the movie illustrates a heroic journey by the protagonist that they would like to emulate.”

Another law professor, Gordon Hylton, stated:

“I once had dinner with John J. Osborn, the author of the novel, and he told us that the story, which he began as a somewhat off-beat 3rd year paper at Harvard Law School supervised by the Anglo-Saxon scholar and playwright William Alfred, was not based so much on his experience as a student at Harvard in the late 1960’s as it was on his impression of what Harvard Law School was like in a previous generation. His own Contracts professor was Lon Fuller, who was apparently very un-Kingsfield like–he never called on anyone in class and relied entirely on volunteers.

According to Osborn, Kingsfield was not based on any particular professor that Osborn had at Harvard; in fact, he said the character was based, if upon anyone, on the legendary early 20th century Harvard Law professor Bull Warren. He also admitted that he knew almost nothing about Bull Warren.

I have always been amazed at what a poor Socratic teacher Kingsfield actually is. He is obsessed with the minute facts of the case and belittling his own students, but he rarely (as in never) asks the intellectually probing sequence of questions that are at the heart (Hart?) of Socratic teaching.”

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