When I was an associate dean at Washburn University School of Law, I used to speak to new students during orientation week about keeping law school in perspective. I addressed how law students are depicted in the movies. Popular cultural references are something we all share, and they can build excellent bridges for illuminating and understanding concepts and situational challenges — including law school. To illustrate this point, I would discuss one film per decade, from the 1970s to the new millennium. These films were The Paper Chase (1973), Soul Man (1986), The Pelican Brief (1994) and Legally Blonde (2001).
By a show of hands, I’d ask the students whether they had seen these films. Not surprisingly, typically most had watched Legally Blonde and The Pelican Brief, a handful had seen The Paper Chase and the fewest hands were raised for Soul Man. I’d ask volunteers to provide synopses of each film.
The Paper Chase involved a young man from the Midwest who attends Harvard Law School and falls in love with the daughter of one of his professors. Soul Man tells the story of a young man who takes pills to alter his complexion so that he can qualify for a minority scholarship to attend Harvard Law School. The Pelican Brief focuses on a bright young woman who attends Tulane University Law School and inadvertently writes a brief that exposes corruption at the highest levels of government. Finally, Legally Blonde chronicles the adventures of a sorority girl who gets serious at Harvard Law School and in the courtroom.
Then, I’d ask the group what these films have in common. Through our discussion, they would discover that in three out of four, the main character (a likable law student who is always a fish out of water in a new and hostile environment) attends Harvard Law School. The exception was Darby Shaw in The Pelican Brief. (According to the The Internet Movie Database, Elle Woods of Legally Blonde was originally set to attend the University of Chicago, but school administrators objected to the harassment story line, so Woods became Harvard-bound instead.) Three of four films included story lines that featured a frightening and formidable law professor. Again, The Pelican Brief is the exception. The nice professor in that film — who may not have been all that sympathetic due to his inappropriate relationship with a student — was killed at the start of the film. This fact always garnered a few awkward chuckles.
“So, what do these discoveries tell us?” I’d ask to a sea of blank stares. “Is every law student a likable fish out of water who goes to Harvard?” A few would smile, and heads would slowly move from left to right. “Of course not,” I’d continue, “but that’s not what many people think, and these images are some of the first pictures your clients may envision when they meet you.”
I would then go on to explain how many people make assumptions about lawyers and law school based on what they see on television and in the movies, and that many of these images are formulaic, repetitive and just plain wrong. To be fair, these films also feature some basic truths about law school that deserve to be acknowledged, and we would discuss those, too. First, law school is hard. Second, it requires adjustments. Third, there are benefits to working through initial challenges and sticking with the process. Finally, Harvard Law may be a great school, but there are many others.
But so many other depictions are incorrect — and bordering on unfair. The primary mistake is the depiction of law professors. To this day, nearly 40 years after the release of The Paper Chase, John Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield remains one of the most intimidating characters in an educational environment. In Soul Man, James Earl Jones never cracked a smile as Professor Banks. In Legally Blonde, actress Holland Taylor as Professor Stromwell was described as someone who would “bust your (you get the idea)” and who sent at least one male student to his room for a good cry. In reality, we know that many law professors go out of their way to help and support students. Open-door policies are much more common than the antiquated Ivory Tower of old. And this genuine demonstration of support and warmth greets students upon entry into the building on their first day of school — not just before the credits begin to roll, as is customary in these movies.
During this point in the discussion, I would do my best to gently assure our nervous new charges that everyone in the building was invested in their success, and that our commitment was sincere. However, I would also warn them that others — family, friends and the aforementioned future clients — might unintentionally make incorrect assumptions about what they were going through, based on what they had seen in these and other films. I would also remind them not to assume law school would automatically be hard or unpleasant; some might actually thrive from the challenge. I’d conclude by reminding students that law school is a personal journey, and that if they took the best lessons from these films — to stick with it and work through the difficulties with the support of family, friends and everyone working in the law school (not just faculty, but staff, too) — then they would have all the tools necessary to succeed.
Speaking of inaccuracies, law professors don’t get the shortest end of the stick when it comes to film depictions. One of the film industry’s most myopic portrayals is its common depiction of deans. If someone wanted guidance on what it really means to be a dean, there are very few references available on any sort of screen — neither the big screen of film nor the small screen of television. Moreover, law school deans are practically nonexistent, even in the four films I used in my presentation to new students during orientation week.
Limiting this overview to some of the more popular film references, most deans appear in comedies. Several of the better-known examples include Dean Wormer in Animal House (1978), Dean Ulich in Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Dean Martin in Back to School (1986) and Dean Kramer in House Party 2 (1991). A brief summary of each character shows striking similarities — and an extremely limited view of what it means to be a dean.
In Animal House, Dean Wormer is sneaky, underhanded and determined to destroy the motley and mischievous fraternity of Delta Tau Chi — a group better known for kegs than (having or attending) class. Unlike Wormer in temperament, but equally aptly named, Dean Ulich in Revenge of the Nerds is a complete pushover. Tiny, bald and sporting a perpetual bow tie, Ulich allows the football coach to call the shots.
Then there’s Dean Martin from Rodney Dangerfield’s comedic gem Back to School. Martin’s sole motivation is fundraising, and he is willing to sacrifice principles and standards based on the size of the check. Yet another administrator is Dean Kramer in House Party 2. Kramer is preoccupied with tuition dollars. When a student misplaces his scholarship check, he visits Kramer several times for guidance. Instead of finding a way to help the student, Kramer bellows, “Time waits for no man!” The student becomes increasingly desperate, to the point of trying to raise the money to stay in school in a creative way that harkens back to the film’s title.
Meshing the characters from these four films into one composite, the decanal image is troubling at best. Our hero is a weak, conniving, greedy little man (never a woman) with an endless collection of bow ties and limited social skills. He stays hidden away in his spotless office in which no administrative work is done, and where he makes underhanded deals in pursuit of personal gain. Finally, the width of his smile directly correlates with the size of the check that’s being written in his, or the school’s, favor.
Granted, these are comedies about college students, and roles of deans are typically incidental bit parts thrown in as funny interludes, or they’re used to further the main story line. These films are logically more focused on students and teachers than on administrators. However, like I’d tell first-year law students during orientation, these images often are our only points of reference until we meet the real thing — or assume the role ourselves.
When I became an associate dean, I didn’t watch every film with a dean character for guidance on how to do the job, but images from these and other films did cross my mind. As associate dean for student affairs, I wanted students to see me as knowledgeable, accessible, approachable and sincere — all of the things movie deans are not. So, in a way, these films have been useful in offering guidance on how not to be. Moreover, the repetitive, comedic stereotype of the college dean may have served to encourage students to see my live performance as a breath of fresh air compared with the disappointing decanal displays they may have seen in just about every college-themed film.
Images, be they positive or negative, are powerful and long-lasting. Part of what makes comedy funny is a familiar recognition of perceived truth. If these fictitious deans hold any acknowledged perception of reality at all, no matter how exaggerated, it’s up to real deans at all levels to dispel myths and redirect the focus, so that film depictions of deans are kept in their proper perspective.
I think this is accomplished at every law school on a daily basis. The truth is that deans are concerned about students, funding and myriad administrative matters, albeit not in the distorted depictions featured in popular movies. But there’s so much more to our stories. The more I think about it, based on what I’ve seen with depictions of law students, I’m not convinced that the film industry could convey what law school deans and associate deans do with complete accuracy. After all, I don’t own a single bow tie.
Kelly Lynn Anders is director of communications and diversity at Creighton University School of Law. She is the author of Advocacy to Zealousness: Learning Lawyering Skills From Classic Films, scheduled for publication by Carolina Academic Press early in 2012. She is a former associate dean for student affairs at Washburn University School of Law.