This is the property of the Daily Journal Corporation and fully protected by copyright. It is made available only to Daily Journal subscribers for personal or collaborative purposes and may not be distributed, reproduced, modified, stored or transferred without written permission. Please click "Reprint" to order presentation-ready copies to distribute to clients or use in commercial marketing materials or for permission to post on a website. and copyright (showing year of publication) at the bottom.

Legal Education,
Law Practice,
Appellate Practice

Sep. 16, 2022

Beyond the paper chase

Contemporary law students seek a legal education that fulfills an expanding range of client needs, promotes access to justice and equips lawyers to make ethical choices in a rapidly changing world.

Stanley Mosk Courthouse

Michael L. Stern

Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court

Independent calendar

Harvard Law, Boalt Hall

Judge Stern worked at the CRLA Santa Maria office from 1972 to 1975. He is chair of the Los Angeles County Superior Court Historical Committee.

It has been 50 years since publication of The Paper Chase, a novel by John Jay Osborn, Jr. about James Hart, a first-year student at Harvard Law School, who wages a quest for the Holy Grail of the law. The very title of the book came to represent the aspirations and anxieties of striving law students everywhere.

In symbolizing the age-old struggles of law students burning the midnight oil to master the law, The Paper Chase struck a raw nerve for reform of legal education to move away from abusive classroom tactics by law professors who claimed to be drilling a mantra into law students' heads to "think like a lawyer."

While his law school classmates were mapping their legal futures, Osborn was collecting lore about the misuse of outdated Socratic teaching methods that aimed to put the fear of failure into law students. He fashions a first-year law school experience for Hart, non-Ivy midwestern outsider, who is convinced that he can beat a system loaded against him and achieve success by getting into the head of his contracts teacher, the imperious old-school Professor Kingsfield.

Osborn opens with a vignette gleaned from law school legend said to have originated with the infamous early 20th century law Professor "Bull" Warren, whose very name and hard-core philosophy of life, spelled out in his book "A Spartan Education," speak for themselves.

Each new year, the "Bull" (and his irascible successors until they were exposed by Osborn) would shake down a selected student who muffed the answer to an impossible legal question by calling the unfortunate victim in front of the class, handing him a dime (cost of a phone call back in the day) and admonishing the poor soul to "Go call your mother, and tell her that you'll never be a lawyer."

In Osborn's twist on the fabled story, the crushed student bows his head, limps slowly through his 150 cowering fellow students, turns, and explodes in anger, "You're a son of a bitch, Kingsfield." Always controlling the moment, the sarcastic professor replies, "That's the first intelligent thing you've said. Come back. Perhaps I've been too hasty."

On his first day of class, Hart has not read the assignment. When Kingsfield cold-calls on him to state the facts of a case, the acerbic professor makes the helpless Hart look like a fool as his terrorized classmates lower their heads in distress.

Having blown the haughty Kingsfield's merciless examination, Hart vows that he will rise to what he believes are the professor's expectations by studying until he drops. In attempting to psych out Kingsfield, he even goes to the extreme extent of breaking into the law library at night attempting to discover the secrets of the law in Kingsfield's preserved first-year student notes.

Hart will do practically anything to accomplish his dream of winning the paper chase and reaping the rewards at the end of the law school rainbow. His every waking moment will be devoted to the jealous mistress of the law.

He joins a study group, a time-honored way for law students to relieve tension and to work together towards achieving law school success. In an era before commercial course summaries, the committed members of the study group divide up the first-year subjects to produce outlines to be shared for the end-of-year exams. They attempt to bond in a common survival mission. As the school year progresses, inevitable problems and disagreements crop up regarding who is skipping group sessions, sloughing off on their outlines, or can't stand one another. When push comes to shove, they realize that each is on his own in a sink-or-swim competition.

Anyone who has attended law school can relate to the stereotypical study group students constructed by Osborn: the compulsive plodder who toils manically to produce a useless 800-page outline; the arrogant narcissist who thinks he knows everything but misses the big picture; the cocky know-it-all who absorbs all the law and facts but cannot connect anything; and the self-doubting drone who is destined for catastrophe.

The Paper Chase would not have been read by generations of law students, scared others out of attending law school, and made into a full-length movie and television series if it had been only about the classroom brutality of a curmudgeon law professor or frantic law students. Osborn adds a heavy dose of sugar and spice to make Hart's law school experience more appealing than the drudgery of touting thick case books to class or sleeping in the law library.

Around Hart's battle to impress his nemesis Kingsfield, Osborn wraps an improbable love affair between Hart and Susan, a woman whom he spots near the law school and follows home. His pursuit leads to the astounding discovery that she is Kingsfield's daughter. In real life, this would be as likely as winning the Powerball lottery two weeks in a row. But this is fiction and Osborn makes suspended reality work.

Susan insightfully understands that the study of law can consume one's soul and there may be more important things in life. As Kingsfield's daughter, she has seen the professor's cruel methods and knows how they can sap a law student's humanity dry.

Having observed dedicated law students like Hart crash on the shoals of law school, Susan counsels him not to fall for Kingfield's bait by becoming servile to him. Hart vacillates in accepting her prudent advice not to joust with Kingsfield. But he is conflicted between his ambitions and his fascination with her.

The interplay of these three characters holds the narrative together: there is the ever-aspiring, but love-torn, Hart; the overbearing and browbeating Professor Kingsfield; and Susan, who intelligently comprehends how the relentless drive for law school success can destroy a person.

For his portrayal as the tyrannical Professor Kingsfield in the movie version of The Paper Chase, John Houseman won an Academy Award. He is, and always will be, the King in his classroom domain. Timothy Bottoms, as Hart, in the final analysis, has heart. Lindsay Wagner, as the wise Susan, is incomparable.

The movie faithfully tracks the book and can be rented for a few dollars on YouTube. If the press of time is a consideration, the movie trailer on YouTube, opening with Kingsfield pummeling the helpless Hart on the first day of class for three priceless minutes, is a "must see."

The Paper Chase initiated other revealing law student-related books and movies, such as Scott Turow's One L and Reese Witherspoon in the hilarious Legally Blonde. These law school depictions further demystified law school education and helped doom antediluvian forms of Socratic classroom interrogation.

While hardly a suspense novel, The Paper Chase captures the emotions with which many can relate regarding their own law school experiences. It is all there: the fulfillment and pride of becoming and surviving as a law student; the confusion and embarrassment of finding a niche in a dog-eat-dog challenge of law school; the fright and stress of being unprepared to answer a law professor's probing question; the decision whether to be a back bencher or front-row gunner; and the hope and potential offered by a legal education.

Law school teaching techniques have changed greatly since autocrats like Kingsfield roamed freely in law school classrooms. Such tyrants can no longer get away with such nonsense. The student battle cry "Question Authority" finally caught up with the law school ivory tower in the 1970's after The Paper Chase came out. Vietnam war protesters, returning vets and, most importantly, greater numbers of women and minorities, forced changes in the composition of law school classes and teaching methods for the better. Today's law students would not put up with Kingsfield's vicious antics.

Future lawyers now demand a more holistic approach to the study of law that emphasizes learning skills useful in the real world of the practice of law. Kingfield's admonition that "you will enter law school with a mind of mush and leave thinking like a lawyer" no longer daunts law students. Students want to derive more from three years laboring in the vineyards of legal training than a constant pressure to succeed.

Contemporary law students seek a legal education that fulfills an expanding range of client needs, promotes access to justice and equips lawyers to make ethical choices in a rapidly changing world.

The Paper Chase helped to make such changes possible by underscoring how the rule of law is shaped by the substance of legal education imparted to developing minds. We have a long way to go towards making the teaching of law more humane and cogent for solving the immense issues confronting our society and the environment in the 21st century. But a realization where we were some 50 years ago provides some perspective for the future.

Full Disclosure: In his preface, John Osborn advises that the characters and events in his book are purely fictional, but that the attitudes ascribed to the characters accurately reflect law school experience. This reviewer was a member of Osborn's first-year study group. He was the "contracts guy" and served us well. In the caldron of law school, we became life-long friends. There was a 40th anniversary publication of The Paper Chase. When I contacted John Osborn about whether there would be a half-century, 50th celebration edition, he said that he believes that we are "beyond The Paper Chase." The book remains a good read. But he is right.


Submit your own column for publication to Diana Bosetti

For reprint rights or to order a copy of your photo:

Email for prices.
Direct dial: 949-702-5390

Send a letter to the editor: