Legal Movie Review: The Paper Chase

Since I started my law school application process over two years ago, my dad has been telling me to watch The Paper Chase. I’m now a 2L with (slightly) more free time, so I thought I would finally give this classic a try. This 1973 movie details James Hart’s first year at Harvard Law School, and while nothing depicts the 1L experience as accurately as the documentary film Legally Blonde, this one does get a lot right.

The First Day

The movie opens with James’ first class on the first day of law school, as every 1L gets to their seats and settles in moments before the professor arrives. I’m generally a bundle of anxious energy on the first day of anything, so I arrived to my first class about 15 minutes early last year. What I didn’t realize was that my first-day anxieties were nothing compared to the motivations of my classmates, many of whom arrived far before I did. Needless to say, if anyone actually showed up as close to the start of the first class as every extra in this movie did, they’d definitely be occupying the dreaded front row.

That being said, the movie does depict the first class itself pretty well. The contracts lecture starts off with a doozy — Hawkins v. McGee — and James gets cold called right away. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, cold calling can start on the first day, so do your reading!

Class Participation

About a month into his 1L year, James remarks that his classmates have settled nicely into three tiers: those who have given up, those who dread being called on but try when they do, and the “upper echelon” who volunteer answers. It becomes his mission to enter into the upper echelon, as he believes its members aren’t necessarily smarter than anyone else, but certainly more courageous.

In my experience, no one in law school really gives up, but there are definitely people who raise their hands more often than others. However, James’ motivation for entering into this “upper echelon” isn’t accurate at all, as he’s under the assumption that volunteering will earn him a better grade. Maybe that was the case in 1973 before exams were graded anonymously, but it certainly isn’t the case today. If you want to enter into the group that volunteers in class, do it because it’ll make you feel confident. But, if you’re more comfortable quietly keeping up with the material, your grade won’t suffer one bit.

Study Groups

Most of the other main characters in this movie are in James’s study group, which is formed on the first night of law school. While this group starts off strong with six members, it whittles down as the year goes on. This seems pretty accurate to me, as the people you connect with right away might not necessarily have the same learning styles, goals, or study habits as you.

It’s important to remember that a study group is a tool. You might want to be in a study group with your closest friends, and that could work out well for you, but it’s also a good idea to find people who you can be the most productive with. If you find that your study group isn’t helping you as much as you wish it did, there’s nothing wrong with making a switch or going solo.

Finals

Finals season may be my least favorite time of the year, but it was my favorite part of this movie. On what appears to be the first reading day, James realizes that panic has descended on the law school campus, so he and the one remaining member of his study group leave town with suitcases to check into a hotel where they can have some peace and quiet. They even have the TV removed from the room, which I wish I had the heart to do during finals.

When they settle in and open their suitcases, it becomes clear that they packed nothing for their trip except for notes and books. What follows is a three-day study spree where the boys sit around in their underwear, order room service, and discuss murder hypotheticals (“Your hand is a deadly weapon. Karate.”). I can’t speak to my dress code during finals season, and my only form of room service is my boyfriend reminding me to drink water every once in a while, but this entire sequence is distressingly accurate. However, what’s even more accurate is the relief you can sense from James when it’s finally done.

Cramming for finals, 1973 style (The Paper Chase).

Grades

Much like the way grades loom over each semester in law school, grades loom over this movie from start to finish. They’re one of the first things mentioned when James settles into school, and the movie ends with him receiving his final grades. Students also constantly stress the importance of grades throughout the movie, explaining that you need them to get competitive jobs, even though they’ll all be graduating with degrees from one of the best law schools in the country.

However, James eventually develops a more healthy perspective on grades throughout the year. As his love interest reminds him, your grades are just a piece of paper. James never really gives up on trying to succeed in his classes, but by the end of the movie, he has realized that his grades shouldn’t define him. Although I wouldn’t recommend going as far as he does at the end of the film, I do recommend adopting his general mindset.


Tess Halpern is a second-year student at BC Law and Vice President of the Impact blog. Contact her at halperte@bc.edu.

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