The Legal Advocate

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Movie Review: The Paper Chase

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“Mister Hart, here is a dime….”

How many of us have talked to someone who’s thinking about attending law school?  They always ask us, “what’s it like?”  And we tell them about our experience as students, maybe about our experience as teachers, too.  Each of us has a unique perspective on the question.  But though we might disagree on what to say when asked, “what’s law school like?” we should be able to agree on one thing: What law school most emphatically is not like is the Harvard Law School portrayed in 1973’s The Paper Chase.  Well, not completely, anyway.

For the two lawyers out there who haven’t seen this movie, it stars Timothy Bottoms as Hart, a first-year law student from Minnesota.  It also stars Lindsay Wagner as his girlfriend.  (Yes, their relationship has a very Hollywood-ian twist.) But no one remembers either one of them.  And that’s for a very good reason.

The real main character of The Paper Chase is Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., who teaches first-year contracts.  Played by John Houseman in an Oscar-winning performance, Kingsfield seems to epitomize what many people believe law school professors are like: cold, heartless, intellectually superior paragons.  He sees his task as creating different people who think a different way: “You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer.”  Kingsfield teaches using intimidation and humiliation.  His conflict with Hart is the guts of the movie.  After an early embarrassment of Hart, Kingsfield utters my favorite speech from this movie:  “Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.” When Kingsfield finally pushes Hart to the breaking point and kicks him out of class, Hart bursts out with: “You… are a SON OF A BITCH, Kingsfield.” Kingsfield’s taciturn reply:  “Mr. Hart! That is the most intelligent thing you’ve said all day. You may take your seat.”  How Hart resolves his feelings about Kingsfield, his girlfriend and the law bring the movie to its finish – and, of course, all of those things intersect.

When you watch this movie again, I’m sure that Houseman’s performance will blow you away.  He deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film.  What’s remarkable is that before this, he hadn’t done much acting. He had a long and distinguished career as both a producer and a director in theater,  radio drama and movies, including working closely with Orson Welles in the 30’s and 40’s.  He was cast as Kingsfield only after a number of other actors, including James Mason (The Verdict) and Paul Schofield (A Man For All Seasons) had either turned down the part or were unavailable.

This movie has particular resonance with me, since I graduated from DU Law School in 1974, the year after The Paper Chase came out. As a DU graduate of that era, I had my own very Kingsfield-like professor, although he wasn’t nearly so nasty, just phenomenally brilliant and really scary. It also should be noted that Kingsfield’s style of teaching is no longer the norm, if it ever was.  As an adjunct professor at DU Law School, a participant at EATS and an attendee of several IAALS conferences, I know that the vast majority of today’s law school professors may be tough, but they are also compassionate, understanding and willing to go the extra mile to help their students succeed.  This is especially true of the folks who teach Trial Advocacy.  Many denizens of Nita City teach Trail Advocacy in addition to practicing law and judging, and some of our best NITA instructors are full-time academics, people like Charlie Rose, Chris Behan and Tom Stewart.

For those of us who attended law school, The Paper Chase will surely bring back memories, some good, some not.  For those who haven’t been to law school, it’s worth a look just to see Houseman’s performance.  Heck, you can even recommend it to someone thinking about going to law school.  Just don’t let it scare them off.

This post was written by NITA guest-blogger Bob McGahey. 

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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