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When pop culture last took a sustained look at American legal education, audiences didn’t like what they saw. “I train your mind,” Professor Charles Kingsfield (John Houseman) intones in “The Paper Chase.” “You come in here with a skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer.” That result — as James Bridges’ 1973 film made all too clear — is far from a good thing. Certainly, Bridges — and John J. Osborn Jr., whose Harvard Law memoir inspired Bridges’ film — meant us to do something about law schools: to question a socialization process that makes relentless self-interest its predominant value; to critique an educational system that emphasizes rationalization over responsibility; to challenge a legal academy that celebrates its insularity from the world. The problem is that nobody ever did. Today, that failure is nowhere more apparent than in the imbroglio brewing at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. On its face, the Hastings fight doesn’t look like much. Hastings wants to convert a well-located inner city lot into an 7-story parking facility. Will school planners succeed? Or will a small group of environmentalists and social justice advocates stymie the project? But the problem for Hastings administrators, and ultimately for all law schools, isn’t scope; it’s symbolism. Indeed, it’s all too likely that Hastings’ behemoth garage, looming over a neighborhood that ultimately needs everything more than it needs parking, may come to be seen as the perfect emblem of modern legal education. Bridges’ own representation of law school has endured for three decades. Even lawyers who have never actually seen “The Paper Chase” know it by reputation: An ambitious, but fundamentally decent, young man — James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) — struggles to survive his first grueling year at Harvard Law School. Bridges’ film received national attention because it was timely: The legal minds behind Watergate had left Americans curious about the kind of schooling that had produced such contempt for law. But “The Paper Chase” survived in the public imagination because it transcended the period’s fatuous harangues and unfortunate hair choices to show how legal education actually works. Bridges shows a brutal grind of enforced competitiveness, immersion in repetitive daily tasks, and the random humiliations offered by Socratic questioning. Is this really necessary, we ask? Law courses aren’t that hard, after all. But the regimen is aimed at socialization, not subject matter. Harvard won’t simply offer Hart new information; it will replace his basic attitudes with a whole new set of perspectives. Bridges argues that law school’s subtlest effect is that students gradually reinterpret — “think like lawyers” about — all human obligations. Aptly, Kingsfield’s contracts class becomes a metaphor for legal education. Kingsfield admits that the assumptions of duty are universal, underlying every personal interaction on earth: “Constitutional contracts, marriage contracts, historical contracts, French contracts, African tribal contracts.” Yet law school learning is directed toward the abrogation of agreements, the limitation of liability, the severing of human connections. And Bridges makes Kingsfield the grand wizard of disengagement. Thus, class sessions are never simply random entries from the Uniform Commercial Code. Instead, Hart’s ongoing encounters with Kingsfield demonstrate an increasing comfort with the repertoire of legal evasion: excuse, ambiguity, adequacy, conditional promise. Inevitably, Bridges argues, the trained legal mind considers even our most essential compact to be imminently voidable. “Every time an idealistic law student turns into a hardened attorney … she brings closer to the breaking point another agreement — the social contract,” Richard Kahlenberg writes in his own memoir of Harvard Law School. “And that is unacceptable.” Eventually, Hart rejects Kingsfield’s instruction. Hastings, on the other hand, does not. Instead, the school seems to have embraced the very philosophy of legal education that Bridges found most problematic: that students be trained to use law to explain away all human responsibility. Lately, Hastings is teaching that idea through its most potent form of instruction, conduct. Hastings administrators obtained the site of its proposed parking garage — formerly low-income housing — through an admitted impropriety. Thereafter, the school razed the residential units on that and other Hastings-owned sites. The destruction inflicted an ongoing injury to the neighborhood, displacing low-income residents who had no other available housing. Challenged to make amends, Hastings responded that its neighbors had failed to demonstrate that the school was obligated to them. Hastings prevailed, a lesson that students should define accountability, not by degree of injury, but by what the plaintiff can prove. “That’s not justice!” Hart’s friend Bell shouts, when Kingsfield invokes a rule that has barred an aggrieved party from offering evidence to support her claim. But Bell, naively mistaking the right thing for responsibility, has failed to think like a lawyer; so Kingsfield leads the class in disparaging him. In recent weeks, Hastings has moved on to new opportunities to educate. Strapped for the funds needed to complete an unrelated project, the school plans to generate cash by luring — with the proposed parking facility — 800 more cars per day into an already-congested neighborhood. Admittedly the scheme violates both state transit policy and city environmental codes. But school administrators answer that Hastings’ university status and institutional mission make the rules inapplicable to them. The lesson urges students to treat no enactment as an actual obstacle to profit-generating. “I hardly need to be reminded that there are exceptions to the statute,” Kingsfield snaps when Hart suggests that an apparently dispositive rule is not invariable. Nevertheless, Kingsfield sees promise in Hart’s nascent malleability; so Kingsfield invites Hart to join him in work on a master statement of contracts law. The disparity between that curriculum and the school’s current message distinguishes what legal education is from what it might be. Hastings could teach us to build an environmentally sustainable learning facility, upgrading air and water quality while generating a thrice-yearly return on its construction cost. Or Hastings could teach us to implement a center for the public interest, housing dozens of offices and agencies in a location that facilitates both clinical instruction and community service. Or Hastings could teach us to invent the future, mobilizing creative designers and long-range thinkers to look beyond this year’s convenience and next year’s cash for a plan that encompasses the century. “I feel like behind those doors, minds are being formed to run the world,” Hart says. What became of our expectations for those who study law? Kingsfield has not always been as we see him, of course. Rather, Bridges demonstrates that Kingsfield’s refusal to accept the limitless obligations of human relationships is the result of a legal education. In Harvard’s archives, Hart finds the notes Kingsfield took as an entering student. “What is a contract? What do you owe to others?” the young Kingsfield asks. The lines stand as a last acknowledgment that enforceability is not commensurate with obligation, that our bonds are the best aspects of our nature, that no hornbook defines what we genuinely owe. An idealistic Kingsfield has written during his first months of study, “Can we make a contract with God that is binding on Man?” The answer is that millions of people do so every day — that such contracts are the basis of the world’s great religions; that they underlie every plea for tolerance; that they give rise to our only realistic hope for peace. Whether or not administrators have yet realized it, Hastings’ conduct in resolving the present controversy is part of the institution’s curriculum. Hastings can evoke its charter to excuse indifference; it can shape its environment to serve itself; it can emphasize pleadings instead of planning; it can limit its duty to the letter of law. Or this large and enduring law school can find something better to teach. Contributing writer Terry Diggs teaches courses on law and film at Hastings and Golden Gate University law schools. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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