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The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: The Paper Chase

For this week’s edition of The Greatest Lawyer Movie of All Time, I decided to check out the 1973 film “The Paper Chase,” which can currently be streamed on Amazon. Unlike the other movies on our list, this isn’t a courtroom drama. Instead, it’s about a first year law student’s struggle to pass Contract Law. If that doesn’t exactly sound like a thriller to you, you’re only sort of right.

The Paper Chase
1973 dir. James Bridges

“The Paper Chase” is surprisingly dramatic for a film that is, essentially, about studying. James T. Hart shows up on the first day of class at Harvard Law School and gets a rude introduction to the Socratic Method. His teacher, the brittle and imposing Professor Kingsfield, asks him to summarize a reading that he didn’t know had been assigned. Hart clams up, and Kingsfield moves on to the next wannabe lawyer to humiliate. The experience lights a fire under Hart. Back at the dorm that night, he joins a study group and accepts a hard truth about his situation: law school is going to be a lot of goddamn work.

A few study montages later, Hart is keeping his head above water in Contracts. Still, he’s anxious. He discerns three “echelons” among his classmates: there are the students who have given up and hide from Kingsfield, the students (like him) who do their best when called on, and the students who raise their hands. This final group is distinguished, chiefly, by their bravery. Hart makes a play to join them, and for time, his star in the class seems to be rising.

The movie does a rare job of capturing the grind and gratification of being a student. Hart loses all semblance of a normal life. He becomes a masochist and a maniac, but there’s no denying the payoff when he is able to say something smart in class. For all its cruelty, Kingsfield’s pedagogical method seems to be working. Hart’s mind is being reshaped; he is starting to think like a lawyer.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. The film plays out more like a twisted love story than a mentorship/coming of age drama. Hart goes to enormous lengths to win the admiration of his teacher and to “penetrate his mind,” Freudian overtones and all. Is Hart in Kingsfield’s head or is it the other way around? Do they actually know each other at all, or is Hart imagining the whole thing? In the end, the filmmakers find both humor and pathos in his masochistic, borderline erotic obsession. It reminded me a lot of the 2014 film “Whiplash,” but with jurisprudence instead of jazz.

Unfortunately, there’s another love story in “The Paper Chase” that doesn’t work nearly as well, and that’s the one that Hart happens to fall into with Kingsfield’s daughter, Susan. At first, Hart doesn’t know who Susan is. They meet by chance, and she stays mum whenever he drones on incessantly about his famous Contracts teacher. When her identity is revealed, Hart briefly considers calling their relationship off, but decides instead that he’s into it. He seems to get a kick out of sleeping with the teacher’s daughter. Freud would like this movie.

The problem is that he is one of the least likeable romantic leads ever put to film. He literally only talks about himself, and he shows far less interest in Susan than in her father. What could she possibly see in him?

That unanswered question, along with a few other plot contrivances, makes “The Paper Chase” an imperfect movie, to be sure. Even so, I highly recommend it for anyone immersed in LSAT preparation. This movie really nails what it feels like to have your life completely taken over by studying: the emotional volatility of it, the weird isolation, the excitement of actually feeling yourself getting smarter. There are not many movies about being a law student, and this one succeeds more often than not.

That said, I should warn you that watching this movie might make you think twice about being a Harvard Law School first year in the early 70s. It doesn’t exactly look like fun.