John Williams did the musical score of The Paper Chase long before Jaws. While the musical score does not have the same dramatic flare of a shark attack when a law student is asked a hypothetical, the silence of such scenes captures the moment of tension extremely well.
I watched The Paper Chase before the first week of law school in 1998 and thought, “Naw, that is not what it is like.”
I was wrong. Professors showed up with seating charts with our faces on it. I quickly realized the film would have many things in common with reality.
eDiscovery Attorneys on The Paper Chase
Jessica Mederson and I hosted a special 40th Anniversary video podcast of The Paper Chase with eDiscovery legend Professor Craig Ball, Caitlin Murphy, Esq., Director of Legal Marketing for Access Data Group and Kelly Twigger, Esq., of ESI Attorneys.
We discussed our law school experiences vs The Paper Chase and our insights on what legal education should include today to produce competent work-ready attorneys.
You Come Here with a Skull Full of Mush and Leave Thinking like a Lawyer
Think like a lawyer. I did not really comprehend how lawyers “thought” when I was preparing for law school. I knew it was not like the LSAT in determining how many clowns could fit in a car. Those idiotic questions nearly kept me out of law school.
The film does not outright explain it, but “thinking like a lawyer” involves analyzing facts and their relationship to the law.
No lawyer movie or TV show has ever really handled the subject of “thinking like a lawyer” well. The idea of breaking down the elements of negligence, or peppercorns for consideration, or the complexities of personal jurisdiction would melt the minds of most movie goers (or sour the prospective jury pool). It would not be a box office gold mine.
The Paper Chase is the best depiction of how lawyers learn to “think like a lawyer.” You see the students reading cases, highlighting relevant sections of text to identify issues and holdings. You experience the emotion of learning to think on your feet by watching the Socratic Method in full force. And no matter how well you did in college, there is always another question waiting to keep you on your toes.
Professor Kingsfield’s quote, “Through my questions, you learn to teach yourselves,” is extremely accurate in describing how law students learn to think like lawyers.
At least it was for me.
It is Hard Being the Living Extension of Tradition
The Paper Chase highlights several huge mistakes law students could make in their first year. These include:
Dividing Up Outlining Responsibilities in a Study Group
Bad idea. Only you know how you best study and learn. Moreover, you cannot be certain the other person has the same learning style as you. The best way to learn the law is to understand how you learn and do the work. There is no substitute.
Writing An 800 Page Outline
No first year should decide to write a treatise on any subject. You need to outline issues, case holdings and “learn to think like a lawyer.” This is not the time to write a book on a subject when you utterly lack the credibility and experience to do so at the expense of your other classes.
Not Taking Practice Exams
This is perhaps the best way to fail out of law school. You must read the cases, even the footnotes and understand how the law works. Taking practice exams empower law students to practice IRAC (Or CRAC, which starts with the Conclusion), which is identifying the relevant legal Issues, stating the Rule that applies, explaining the legal Analysis of how the facts and law relate, and stating a Conclusion. The most important element of IRAC or CRAC is Analysis. Underlining key terms helps in making it easier for professors to grade.
You also learn how your professor thinks, which will help you in the long run of preparing for the final exam.
Do Not Poison Relationships By Talking About Law School
The fictional Hart makes a huge error with a prospective girlfriend: He talks at length about law school and a professor.
Don’t do that.
Worse yet, Hart told his girlfriend, “I have not been working hard enough since spending time with you.”
Do not blame a girlfriend or boyfriend for you not studying enough. If you have any basis for emotional support, the last think you want to do is burn the bridge to someone who cares about you.
Reflections on Law School
No one goes to law school to enhance their self-esteem. It is an exhausting three years. There is stress from studying, stress from classes, and stress in finding a job.
There are also many foxhole friendships. A sense of adventure. And even a fondness looking back. John Jay Osborn wrote a very insightful essay on how his views changed of Harvard as his daughter prepared for law school.
There is also something else I experienced at law school: Kindness.
I actually was wait-listed for McGeorge. The summer I should have taken a LSAT course I instead worked 18-hour days at my mother’s business without pay. Dickens and Tolstoy would have been proud, but my LSAT score suffered dramatically for it. Landing in the purgatory of a wait-list was the result of not taking a prep class.
I decided to take action and not go down without a fight. I asked three professors from UC Davis if they would send in letters of recommendation on my behalf. A good friend from college brewed beer with two professors from McGeorge. One of those professors agreed to meet with me. After our meeting, he asked a few questions at the admissions office.
The Dean of Admissions called me after my letter campaign. I was accepted to McGeorge shortly before the beginning of the 1998 fall semester, based on my college grades, letters of recommendation and the inquiries of a very kind law professor.
I then worked my tail off for three years.
I was impressed by the dedication of my professors at McGeorge. They were tough, but I did not have any horror stories besides the usual ones. The professors were always available for office hours and willing to help the student who showed up with sweat on their brow from hours of studying.
Two of them of note: my Civil Procedure and Constitutional Law professors. My first year Civil Procedure professor masterfully used PowerPoint and graphics to breakdown the complexities of the code and cases. He wanted us to understand how the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure worked and very effectively helped us understand complex cases like Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court and a litany of others.
Civil Procedure was my only A in my first year. I was my old prof’s research assistant between my Second and Third years of law school. I had no idea how knowing Civil Procedure would later impact my career as an eDiscovery attorney.
My Con Law professor was one of Ralph Nader’s “Raiders.” There was one of his Supreme Court cases in our book. He always wore a suit to class, treated everyone with respect and taught the subject, not his opinions. I had an A- in his class, just one point away from an A. He attended my swearing in ceremony as an attorney. Truly a class act.
As I look back on my personal law school experience, it is less The Paper Chase and more Stand By Me. I have had the good fortune to guest lecture at my alumni several times over the years. Today’s law students have many increased challenges when they graduate in finding a job, however we will always need good attorneys to represent those in legal jeopardy.
Preparing the Next Generation of Lawyers
I do not agree with President Obama that law school should be two years. The third year is extremely helpful in finding areas of law prospective attorneys are interested in practicing and continuing to build marketable skills.
That being said, law students need as many experiences as possible to prepare them for the practice of law. Law schools have done a good job with teaching students online legal research skills. Students have had free legal research accounts since the early 1990s from Lexis and Westlaw (and anyone can use Fastcase for free). Legal research is one of the basic building blocks to be able to practice law.
It is time for another step forward and teach students how to conduct document review in online repositories, summarize depositions, billing best practices and the software basics they will use everyday at any size firm. One only needs to look at the results of the technology audit from the General Counsel of Kia to see how painfully behind many attorneys are with basic technology.
Law schools would dramatically help their students with practical internships, paid positions and leveraging alumni to help build the experience of future attorneys. This would require career development offices to shift from finding jobs for the top 5% of a graduating class to putting an entire class of law students to work in their third year. Such an undertaking would be the Project Apollo for law schools in need of a Von Braun on every campus. It would not be easy and take very dedicated hard work. However, it is necessary for future attorneys to be competitive in the job market and competent in the practice of law.