The Paper Chase: What Does the Film Tell Us About Contemporary Legal Education?

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Popular Culture & Law

I recently screened The Paper Chase (1973) in one of my law school classes.  While the majority of current law students are more familiar with recent pop cultural portrayals of legal education such as Legally Blonde (2001), The Paper Chase seems to me to set the stage for those portrayals, especially through the character of Professor Kingsfield and the images from his menacing Socratic classes.  I interpret The Paper Chase as the fictional story of a law student encountering and then overcoming the dehumanizing forces of legal education.

My students resisted this interpretation and proffered two other readings.  Some thought The Paper Chase should be recognized as a largely accurate portrayal of the realities of legal education.  One student shared with the class her experience of standing on her feet for 40 minutes while a Socratic professor ripped her ego and confidence to shreds.  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 student said she regretted her legal education was not more like the one portrayed in The Paper Chase.

Overall, there is not a “correct” interpretation for the film.  Film is one variety of cultural text, and the meaning of a given film depends on the interaction of the text and individual viewers.  Different viewers can legitimately find different meanings in the same text, and, indeed, the same viewer might find different meanings in the same text at different stages of his or her life.   That having been said, I’m encouraged that all of those who commented on The Paper Chase were prepared to discuss what actual legal education is or could be.  Legal education is richer and more meaningful if we not only participate in it but also critically appraise it.

8 thoughts on “The Paper Chase: What Does the Film Tell Us About Contemporary Legal Education?”

  1. I watched this film for the first time all the way through just a couple of years ago. As a professor teaching Contracts for the first time, I naturally was interested in the Kingsfield character. The movie focuses on the exploits of the students and their fear of Kingsfield, but the end of the film actually made me feel sorry for him. He’s taught these students for a whole year, but he doesn’t even recognize Hart in the elevator or have any appreciation of the effect he’s had on him. Kingsfield’s entire life seems to be a waste of time, because he’s getting nothing out of the teaching experience.

  2. Having largely agreed with all that David and Bruce said, let me add that 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. And as Bruce emphasizes, a whole person (and a whole lawyer) needs more.

  3. I think that focusing on the so-called dehumanizing aspect of law school misses the point. Most students have a narrative of their life, and they view law school as an obstacle to be overcome before they can ascend to an illustrious profession and thereby prove themselves to be a member of society worthy of respect. As Joseph Campbell might say, law school is a part of their “hero’s journey.” These students may have never before been pushed intellectually, nor faced any real adversity in terms of stress or competition for jobs. If law school presents no real challenge to them, then their personal narrative loses its meaning. From the point of those of us who are law professors, it makes sense to criticize the oppresive 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.

  4. It is unfortunate that some time in the 1990’s, the Paper Chase dropped off the list of universal cultural references for law students. I assigned it for class this past summer, and I was dismayed to learn how hard it is to find the film in vidoe stores. Apparently it is no longer a must-have film even for respectably sized Blockbuster and Hollywood video outlets. (Some time ago the Marquette Law School Library even discarded itS VHS copy for lack of patron use.)

    I don’t think the movie was ever intended to be a precise description of legal education as it was in the early 1970’s. The director, James Bridges, had no background in law or legal education and just relied on the novel the Paper Chase for the story. In the 1980’s, 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.

    Gordon Hylton
    Marquette Law School

  5. I think Ed’s comment is a perceptive one. I remember having those some feelings myself from time to time as a law student–wishing that law school would be some sort of heroic intellectual journey. Of course, the rest of the time, my sentiments were more along the lines of, “I wish these professors would stop playing hide the ball and just tell us the answers, for Lord’s sake!”

  6. I must have missed this on the first time around.

    Good comments from everyone so far. I have no specific issues but just a few additional comments regarding the study group.

    The study group sequences show a couple of things. It is folly for each member of the study group to take responsibility for outlining just one course, and the movie shows you why. One guy washes out completely and quits law school, while another becomes obsessed with his Property outline. The lesson is, glean what you can from others but ultimately, don’t trust, or rely on others to get you through law school. The other lesson is, tricks that might have gotten you through college might not work in law school. The member of the study group who quit school relied previously on his photographic memory, while the Property guy relied on an attention to detail that bordered on obsession. All fine and well if he aces Property, but how will he do in Torts, Contracts, and Civil Procedure? And even if he makes it through 1L, who would ever want to work with him again?

    1. Interestingly enough, Bell, the guy with the obsession with Property, is still around after becoming a 2L and goes on to graduate. Although the first episode of the series brings out his obsession with Property, overall in the series version he’s more of a comic figure than the more menacing one he appears be in the movie. Still, you’re right; who’d want to work with him?

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