The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, March 31, 2014

"The Study of Law is Something New and Unfamiliar to You…"

Somehow, I missed this when it first was posted:

John Jay Osborn, who wrote the novel, had a love-hate relationship with Harvard, if my reading of the novel is accurate. And it seems to have been; as he wrote over a decade ago:
When I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970, my feelings about the place were clear, sharp. It was an interesting place, an important place and a bad place. It did not have the flexibility to allow individuals to express themselves. It did not allow for reciprocity between faculty and students. In short, it really had no desire to be loved, or even to be respected. The big dark institution, symbolized for me by Langdell Hall, only wanted to be feared. It was very successful in inspiring fear and despair, both in the classroom and in the larger world.

My first novel, "The Paper Chase," portrayed this vision of the institution. Its central character, Professor Kingsfield, on the last day of class, is told by Hart, the student hero, that Kingsfield's contracts class meant something to Hart, that Kingsfield was very important to him. Finally, the corners of the professor's lips turn up in a slight smile. "What was your name?" Kingsfield asks, stepping past Hart. You will never be anything more than a number on a seating chart, Kingsfield is saying; despite all your efforts, you mean nothing to me, or to Harvard Law School.
However, as his creator notes, that didn't remain entirely consistent:
Imperceptibly, over the years, Kingsfield changed. In the six years that "The Paper Chase" was on television--first on CBS, then on PBS, later on Showtime--he grew more complicated. I remember writing the episode "Scavenger Hunt." It begins with Kingsfield going to incredible lengths to track down the most obscure citations available within the entire university. He will then send his students out on a gigantic scavenger hunt to find these citations, a hunt that has no rules, pitting them against each other in a zero-sum game, in which the person who finds the citations gets an A, and everyone else flunks. (Or does he really have something else on his mind, something more "educational"?) We begin with Kingsfield and his loyal secretary, Mrs. Nottingham, down in a subbasement, looking over uncataloged items by candlelight, while a rotting sewer line leaks on their heads.

What law professor is going to go to those lengths? Well, in fact, none. So, if Kingsfield does this, what does it say about him? It says that he cares. It may not be easy to see that, and he would never admit it, but in some fundamental way, he really cares about teaching, and by implication he also cares for his students.
In the above video, he says that the TV series is "a watered down version"--that Kingsfield shows that he cares to us the viewer, if not the students. Interestingly, Osborn claims that there was no one person on whom Kingsfield was based. When I heard John Houseman speak at Fordham,he asserted (as he had elsewhere) that Kingsfield was based on Edward "Bull" Warren, about whom Houseman told several stories, including one in which Warren saw a woman seated in class, wearing trousers, and STARED at her. And STARED at her until, uncomfortable at the glare, she crossed her legs. Warren, so Houseman told us, then intoned, "Now that the gates of Hell are closed--"

Warren, clearly, was not a particularly lovable man, but was not always such a stickler for propriety--Houseman also described him as, late one evening, urinating on Boston Common, "though whether out of necessity or principal remains unknown," he added.


rick allen said...

As an alumnus of the illustrious Harvard Law School I was both terrified when I first saw "The Paper Chase" as a college senior, and then anxious, after beginning my first year, that all my friends and family see it so as to appreciate the hell I was going through.

Hell, of course, it turned out not so much to be. Of course there was the fear of being called on unprepared, and the regular (for me) humiliation of always giving sputtering, clueless, inadequate answers. For anyone who cares, no student ever gave answers as confident and assured as those spoken in the movie.

I never read the novel, but, shortly after graduating, and starting with a big firm, I read Osbourne's "The Associates," which I found an atrocious piece of writing.

Oddly enough, when I was a 1L, Scott Turrow, by then a 3L, had just published "One L," another "hell at HLS" classic. It was widely known that his "Kingsfield" figure, "Perini," was based on Arthur Miller, who was not at all happy at the portrayal. A number of other profs were also easily recognizable, as well as some particularly unattractive students, which was a little beyond the pale.

I find it a little galling sometimes that the President of the United States and the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court came from HLS from around my time, and that I continue to toil away as a minor bureaucrat in a small state. One acquaintance went on to be a governor and senator, one friend to be an ambassador. The institution still exaults and humiliates.

But what I find most interesting, over all, is the way law schools have, really, instilled a particular value system in the legal profession, one that, I think, both coincides and contrasts with that of the Christian religion. Christianity emphasizes community, self-denial and love. American law puts the emphasis on individuality, due process, and rights. Consider Jesus' parable of the workers who got the same pay for a partial day and a full day--a more egregious violation of the Equal Pay Act can't be imagined. Grace trumps egalitarianism every time in the New Testament; not so in the courts. It makes, I think, an interesting lens through which to see the development of our jurisprudence.

Anglocat said...


Always good to hear from you!

I'm a Columbia man, myself, and we had a prof whose vocal inflections were very much James Mason in The Verdict.

Your comment really resonates with me--I'm a bureaucrat at a municipal agency, and while it's been a good ride, I've seen some go further faster. Aye well...

Welcome back, Rick!