JUDICIAL REVIEW: The Paper Chase (1973)

In which I review movies with a legal focus.

I start this feature of my website with The Paper Chase because it represents the producers’ version of law school.

the Paper Chase movie Timothy Sullivan

Starring:  Timothy Bottoms, John Houseman, Lindsay Wagner

Timothy Bottoms’ character “Hart” is the first year law student at Harvard eager to make a good impression on one of his professors – a contracts professor, Houseman’s “Kingsfield”.  His goal to get through First Year in one piece.  His love interest, “Susan”, (played by Lindsey Wagner before she had bionic implants), is the once-scorned, twice cynical, life-grounding distraction for Hart from what may allow him to succeed with his goal.

A Peek at who got Costs*
Hart makes it.

The Facts
The film is about Hart making his way through Law School and not specifically about his challenges in Contracts class.  The confusion, despair and exhilaration he experiences in Contracts class, however, is emblematic of his is journey through his first year.

Hart is in awe that he finds himself among the students at a top tier Law School from whence came numerous US Supreme Court Judges, Presidents and other notables.

After blundering an answer to one of Kingsfield’s questions during the first day of class, Hart sets into motion his method to impress his professor.  Ultimately, his goal is to know the material so well that Kingsfield will feel compelled to learn his name.  However, his plan is in conflict with his desire to have some fun and to take a ‘bite of out life’.

Hart agrees to join a study group but is distracted by Susan’s ongoing attempts to point out the lighter side of life.

When he approaches Kingsfield after class with a poignant legal argument, Kingsfield, impressed (but wondering why Hart did not raise the point during class) asks Hart to do research for a treatise the professor is writing, and to have it on his desk early the following Monday morning.  His dilemma is that he had agreed to go away for the weekend with Susan.  He chooses the research project over Susan and loses her.

When he does not have the research in on time, Hart asks for an extension of time.  His request is not only denied but the project is handed to a more senior student and the research is no longer be required of him.

Hart combats this dichotomy throughout the film – love for life and interest in Susan, and his passion to excel at Law and for Kingsfield to know his name – throughout the film.

It all works out in the end, of course.  Susan comes around.  Hart becomes known as an excellent student, even if Kingsfield couldn’t name him if it was written on his forehead.  He receives in the final scene what the audience can only presume is a passing grade.

The Law
There is some discussion of actual law in the film.  The film is set at Harvard Law’s first year Contracts Class, after all.  Kingsfield’s teaching method is Socratic, meaning he asks questions rather than lectures.

The 1891 Carbolic Smoke Ball case is reviewed, as are concepts of auctioneer as agent, frustration of contract, and the difference between a ‘condition’ and a ‘condition on a promise’. The Statute of Frauds is mentioned briefly.  “Felony murder”, a concept to make the death of someone more serious in law if committed during the commission of a crime even if the death is accidental, is explained.

There is some illegal conduct in the film.  It occurs when Hart and a classmate break into the library to pour over archived notes.  Hart’s interest is to review Kingsfield’s own First Year Law contract notes.

The movie is dated, of course, but it seems to carry with it a timelessness.  Boy meets girl, boy meets Law Professior, Boy wants to impress both.  Boy makes a success out of himself through hard work.

Most, if not all, English-language law schools in North America require that the Law School Admissions Test be written with one’s grade to the “LSAT” factored into the admissions calculation.  When I was considering law, I once noticed an LSAT preparation course offered a viewing of The Paper Chase.  I had not seen the film until well into my years as a lawyer but I was impressed with much of the accuracy of it.  The Socratic method was a popular teaching technique where I was and the feeling of competition, stress at succeeding and of wanting to make an impression is similar to the environment I remember from law school.  The Contracts class of Professor Kingsfield bore a remarkably similar style to the Contracts professor of my first year.

The students alongside Hart bore a uncanny resemblance to my first year classmates.  They had come from many different backgrounds.  One character in The Paper Chase, who was married and considered Hart a close friend, had a photographic memory.  He could remember all the facts of the cases when questions were posed of him.  Kingsfield, however, pointed out that remembering facts did not make a good student. The Law demanded that facts be applied to the law through analysis.  The identification of issues and the resolution of issues requires much more than memory of the facts.

Kingsfield was not wrong.  The facts of a case are very often important in understanding the law, but it is merely the first of many steps in coming to a reasonable solution.  One classmate of mine could recite facts of a case quite readily, and impressively so.  However, the analysis of the law requires only relevant facts, which is a skill in and of itself.  To my knowledge, that classmate appears very successful in a career other than law.

The Paper Chase is a good movie and a fairly accurate portrayal of aspects of law school, in my experience.  The struggles Hart experiences are but a small element of the challenges law students go through.  The challenges of his classmates are a clear picture of the experiences of most, if not all, law students experience.  The study of Law is not like other academic pursuits.  Like Kingsfield tells his students on the first day: “”I train your mind … you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

One classmate from Hart’s study group cannot understand the material and relies on the group colleagues to see him through, although eventually he is dismissed from the group.  The internal dynamic of the group is very competitive, not given to collaboration or co-operation.  In the end, perhaps surprisingly, the group as a study tool fails.  Law school can be very competitive.  When I was in law school, at a time when electronic research was available but was not the norm, I was told of other classes and other law schools where pages were ripped out of books to keep classmates from finding answers or completing assignments.  Our class, conversely, was chastised for circling answers in library material.

In the film, one member of the study group quits law school because he cannot reconcile his former academic excellence (he had a photographic memory) with the rigours of law school.  Another member is domineering, heartless and crass.  Although he appears to have had excellent briefs for all his classes from which to study for finals, he loses them out a window while showing off how great his briefs are.  Ironic.

Obiter Dicta
The Paper Chase, surprisingly, was John Houseman’s first film.  He was 71 years old.  However, he was a well-known dramatic actor and teacher at the time.  He was approached by the producers while he at the Julliard School of Fine Arts for a list of good but unknown students who could audition for some of the roles.  Although Houseman refused to release any students during semester, the then 21-year-old producer, Roderick Paul, recommended that the teacher, whomever he was (it was Houseman), could play Kingsfield.

Houseman won two best actor in supporting role awards, an Oscar and a Golden Globe.  The film was also nominated for a best writing Oscar.

Bottoms and Wagner were largely unknown actors when they were cast.  Several of the students in the study group will be known to movie watchers who largely developed their respective careers after The Paper Chase.

(A hotel sequence to where Hart and a classmate escaped to study for finals was in fact filmed at the Windsor Arms in Toronto.)

Prior to The Paper Chase, Love Story (1970) had been filmed at Harvard.  Since the film met with some displeasure by the university brass, it refused to permit The Paper Chase to film on its grounds, although it relented and ultimately permitted three days for stock footage and one scene at the football stadium featuring Hart and Susan.

The final scene, set presumably at Cape Cod, was filmed in California.  It was too cold in Toronto and Boston for the actors to complete it where the rest of the movie was filmed.  Wagner at one point had been suffering from a serious cold during a winter scene when Hart fell through the ice of a pond.  While trying to rescue him, Susan, too, fell into the icy water.  The producers did not want to risk any further (ahem) discomfort and trotted off to California for the final scene.

So what did you think of the movie, or this this review?  Email me at and let me know if you have any suggestions.  Use “The Paper Chase” in the subject line of the email.


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