Kingsfield on Higher Options

This time last year, I found myself explaining to concerned parents at the Higher Options Fair that law students’ small lecture load does not necessarily mean a small work load. Plus ça change. My colleagues have found themselves explaining much the same thing today at this year’s event. Briefly, law students should spend considerable amounts of time on independent reading, developing research skills (how to find what is relevant) and honing discernment and judgment (how to decide what to use of what is read) – these are all important practice skills which they learn in college.

In the US, variations on the Socratic Method are widely used (and just as widely discussed) in Law Schools to teach these skills, and it is one of the driving dramatic forces in The Paper Chase, a book/movie/tv series on which I have already commented here and here. Its great character was John Houseman‘s inconic Contracts Professor, Charles Kingsfield – the clip below is the first time we meet him in the tv series:

The case being discussed in the clip is Hawkins v McGee 84 N.H. 114, 146 A. 641 (Supreme Court of New Hampshire, 1929) (wikipedia; pdf), and Kingsfield’s victim is James T Hart, the confused first year law student, played by Timothy Bottoms, who is the central character in the series. But even though the series is nominally about Hart, as Tim Zinnecker recently commented on The Faculty Lounge, Houseman’s Kingsfield steals the show in every scene in which he appears. Timothy Burke on Easily Distracted acknowledged that calling students up on the carpet in an imperious Professor Kingsfield fashion is a beautiful style of teaching when done well (though he preferred the approach of his high school English teacher, who taught with passion). Kingsfield’s literary creator, the author John Jay Osborn Jr, noted A Change in Professor Kingsfield–and His Creator: over the course of book/movie/tv series, he grew more complicated. Todd J. Zywicki on the Volokh Conspiracy posed the question Who Was the Basis for Professor Kingsfield?, and The Faculty Lounge added a few more candidates to the list (before the link died). Moreover, in a tribute to the character’s enduring appeal, Michael Vitiello has written a full law review piece about him: “Professor Kingsfield: The Most Misunderstood Character in Literature” 33 Hofstra Law Review 955 (2005) (pdf). Indeed, in what was no doubt an intentional reference, the 2002 movie The Socratic Method (imdb), about first year law students in a fictional California law school, features a Professor Houseman.

My continuing mission is to become like Kingsfield every day. I teach Contract. That’s a start.

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