Film Friday: The Paper Chase – A Synopsis

It’s another school year! The 1L’s are filing into the halls of their Ivy clad institutions with big dreams of going forth with their degrees and changing the world! In preparation of their time in law school, which they may have heard can be quite trying, they’ve likely read a number of books on the subject, such as Scott Turow’s “One L” or that wonderful book “Law School Confidential” and now believe they know all there is to know about surviving law school.

And for all of those idealistic little fucks wandering into their classes filled with the superior air of one that will be the next Clarence Darrow or Daniel Webster, Professor Charles Kingsfield of Harvard Law has some guidance for you:

“[H]ere is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”

Because, motherfuckers, you ain’t seen nothing yet, even though it isn’t like Hollywood didn’t warn your ass back in 1973 when it took a book about the horrors of being a 1L with a demanding professor, the crushing demands of law school, gunners, and, of course, looking like a goddamn idiot when put on call in class and turned it into the seminal movie for law students everywhere to show their friends in an act of mock bravado. Yes, buckle up, chucklefuck, because today we’re going to talk about the over-exaggeration of the horrors of law school that is The Paper Chase for this month’s Film Friday on Lawyers and Liquor.

So first, for all the people out there who were spared the experience of getting High Anxiety (if you don’t understand why that’s a joke, stop reading right now and go buy that movie), let’s do a quick rundown of the plot of a movie that every law student likes to use as evidence that PTSD can, in fact, come from a single Socratic lecture:

Mr. Hart is a brand spanking new 1L at Harvard Law School, where he has found himself a study group consisting of all of the worst stereotypes in law school: “My Daddy is a lawyer,” “I’m a gunner,” “I shouldn’t be here because I have a life worth living, but I am,” and so on.  Hart himself is a graduate of Shit-sotta State University, having majored in animal husbandry or some shit before deciding he’d hang up the “horse ejaculating gloves” to go try his hand at something a little less respectable by attending law school.  The film is heavy on this aspect, the out of place midwesterner amongst the “elite of the elite” at Harvard Law School, amongst the Ivy clad walls of higher learning.

As a first year, he’s forced to take Contracts, a course that your humble host here personally fucking loved, under the tutelage of the legendary Professor Kingsfield, the type of law professor who literally wrote the goddamn book on the subject matter, and therefore the biggest fucking nightmare imaginable for a man-child such as Hart.  Hart, so impressed by the mental magnitude of crusty contractual knowledge, is placed “on call” the very first day of class.  Of course, he didn’t do the goddamn reading and then, in those horrible days prior to Wikipedia and “briefing outlines” online, he tells the professor he didn’t read the case.

That noise you heard? That’s every lawyer in the world just fucking groaning at the thought of someone looking a professor in the eyes and saying “I haven’t read the case” right after being placed on call.  That is a sympathy groan. You hear a similar noise when someone gets hit in the fucking balls from every man in attendance.

Having flamed out spectacularly before all of his section members, Hart then finds himself praying the porcelain god immediately after class as Kingsfield eviscerates Hart by displaying the ignorance of a 1L for all to mock and roundly deride.  Seriously, if you watch no other part of this movie, go watch this part because it is, in fact, a stunning example of the Socratic method: no lecture, all questions.

In fact, fuck a whole lot of “watch the movie.”  Here’s the goddamn clip from that scene.

You know the funny thing about that scene, though? Hart isn’t actually that far off for someone who didn’t read the case. His answer is the damages should be the difference between what the kid had (a burned hand) and what he ended up with (a burned and hairy hand), which is…sort of right! One measure of contract damages is what it would take to restore the person to the position they were in before the breach/failure to perform. So, Hart is kind of on point. Hence the reason Kingsfield moved on….there’s no “atta boy!” in Kingsfield’s court!

That’s the reality of life as a lawyer and law student, folks. When you get it right, you still fucking worry that you got it wrong.

Anyhow, Hart has a series of zany misadventures like…getting himself involved in a study group of insufferable assholes, having a member of said study group suffer a goddamn breakdown Hart blithely chases the skirt of the professor’s daughter and then redoubles his efforts once he discovers she’s Kingsfield’s daughter.

If this was, like, a raunchy college comedy, he’d fuck her for the laughs. In this one, though, it seems like he’s banging her solely to crawl deeper inside Kingsfield, who Hart comes to idolize with a degree of obsession that makes it surprising he doesn’t ask the lady to wear a mask resembling her father’s face during coitus. Because who wouldn’t want to lay some pipe inside the sex machine that is Kingsfield?

Oh, yeah, I mean, that’s like the central fucking theme of the movie, too. Hart chasing after the approval and recognition of Professor Kingsfield, to the extent that he breaks into the goddamn law library archives to find the man’s old class notes from when he was a student. The whole fucking situation is one of Hart struggling for the intellectual love of an older man. Guys, they could literally call this movie “Chasing Daddy’s Cummies,” change like five scenes, and it would make just as much goddamn sense as it does now.

The kicker of all this, though? At the end of the day Hart, who has struggled through the class and worked his ass off for the notice, finds himself finally alone in the elevator with Kingsfield. If this was a movie that followed Hollywood tropes, Kingsfield would hit the emergency stop, make some comment on Hart’s midwestern looks, and the two would go full bore loving on each other. However, as this is a movie about law school, the makers stick to realism: Kingsfield, despite having Hart in his class for the whole goddamn time and calling on him multiple times, can’t even remember his name. To the professor, all of the students are just fucking faces on a seating chart, none of them worthy of notice unless it’s to deride them.

In retaliation, Hart doesn’t even open his goddamn grades up when they come in, instead flinging them symbolically into the ocean in…I don’t know…some statement against the man or something? The movie is from the 70’s. We’ll go with that.

Now, here’s the unrealistic fucking parts of the movie:

  1. You probably won’t throw up from being put on call. Probably. Maybe.
  2. Most of your professors will probably remember your name at the end of the semester.
  3. Nobody’s throwing their goddamn grades in the fucking ocean without reading them. I bet you anything two seconds after the end of the film, Hart was wading into the ocean and punching sharks so he could start obsessing about his class ranking.

Here are the realistic parts:

  1. There is a place called “law school.”
  2. You will severely fuck up at least once while on call, and feel like you have deeply disappointed a professor.
  3. You will at some point feel you have a special bond with a professor, vastly overestimating your impact on their lives as they do this shit every goddamn year.
  4. At least one person in your study group will have a fucking breakdown.

There.  There you go. That’s me talking about the fucking Paper Chase, a movie that everyone will use as an example of how law school destroys your life.