Chasing Paper

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the recent addition of a law news feed on the top of the right side bar; it’s called Paper Chase, and it provides Jurist headlines updated every 15 minutes or so. (Update: I deleted the feed when the widget ceased to function, but the website is still there, and it is now a subscription in my blogroll, on the right). I presume it gets its name from the novel (1970, reissued 2004), movie (1973) and television series (1978-1978, 1983-1986) of that name. I was reminded of this wonderful cultural insight into elite US law schools by a post by David Papke on the Marquette University Faculty Blog:

The Paper Chase: What Does the Film Tell Us About Contemporary Legal Education?

I recently screened The Paper Chase (1973) in one of my law school classes. While the majority of current law students are more familiar with recent pop cultural portrayals of legal education such as Legally Blonde (2001) [imdb], The Paper Chase seems to me to set the stage for those portrayals, especially through the character of Professor Kingsfield [wikipedia] and the images from his menacing Socratic classes. I interpret The Paper Chase as the fictional story of a law student encountering and then overcoming the dehumanizing forces of legal education.

My students resisted this interpretation and proffered two other readings. Some thought The Paper Chase should be recognized as a largely accurate portrayal of the realities of legal education. … Other students interpreted The Paper Chase as a positive portrayal of legal education, as a suggestion that law school could and should toughen students and separate those who “had it” from the mere posers. One student said she regretted her legal education was not more like the one portrayed in The Paper Chase. …


As I found myself explaining yesterday at the Higher Options Fair to parents concerned that a relatively small number of class contact hours meant that their children wouldn’t have to do much study if they were to do law in College, studying law entails a great deal of chasing paper (or perhaps electrons): law students are required to do a lot of independent reading and research; learning how to chase this paper in the library or these electrons online is one important skill which students learn in law school. Hand in hand, students also learn discernment and judgment (how to decide what to use of what is read). It has always seemed to the me that the Socratic Method of instruction beloved of US Law Schools – and, in exaggerated form, one of the dramatic constructs which drives the classroom scenes in The Paper Chase – is a particularly good way of inculcating these skills. Of course, The Paper Chase presents an extreme vision of the socratic classroom for dramatic effect. But it is true that, even without that method of teaching, Law Schools do require large amounts of reading and discussion, in order to hone the instincts and judgment that lawyers will need in practice. Perhaps, therefore, as a lecturer in Contract, I should model myself more on Kingsfield?

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