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.