Book Review by Sapphire Ng
One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright November 1988
One L is a ravishingly-written, highly entertaining, keenly inspirational, and somewhat anxiety-inducing narrative as Turow trudges through the first-year curriculum at the prestigious Harvard Law School, as one of the 140 students of section two.
Future or current law students, and keen readers, will savor the distinctly fascinating pieces of legal knowledge and information shared in the book. In Contracts, it was lectured that “most of the greatest legal commentators of the past century have been Contracts scholars: Williston, Corbin, Fuller, Llewellyn, Baldridge;” in terms of “policy questions,” or “deep-thought issues,” an example goes, “How much discretion do we want judges to have in interpreting contracts? Too much, and the judge, in essence, can compose the agreement himself, rather than the parties. Too little, and the judge may have to accept without question all kinds of perjury and injustice.”
The author aptly furnished readers with fundamental information related to his courses—Civil Procedure “deals with the uniform set of rules courts use to conduct their business in all noncriminal actions,” with the second term devoted to close examination of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; Criminal Law, as taught by Bertram Mann, was “the only course that would concentrate expressly on the relationship between government and private citizens” where “much of our time would be spent on the Model Penal Code;” his elective Law and Public Policy, taught by Guy Sternlieb, is “a crash course in the working skills needed in upper-level positions in government: analytic knowledge, methods of planning, management techniques;” and Legal Methods is a “small informal course on legal writing and other lawyering skills.
Readers will appreciate and enjoy morsels of wisdom as shared by Turow's professors. Nicky Morris, professor of Civil Procedure, expounded the importance of business law—“Even a criminal prosecutor, for instance, could not handle many kinds of fraud and embezzlement cases without knowing something about a corporation.”
The book is most prominently enlivened by the author's colorful commentary regarding his professors and courses. Turow vividly painted his Contracts professor, the notorious Rudolph Perini, who was known for brutal implementation of the Socratic method. Students were “powerfully intimidated” by Perini's “routine of heavygoing inquisitions;” Perini subjected unprepared students to a look of “horrible hatred,” a voice “icy with contempt,” and an expression “mad enough for murder.” The author observed “the exorbitance of Perini's manner [that] seemed to release a sort of twisted energy.” And perceived Perini's “flamboyant demonstrations,” “mocking inquiries,” and “such obvious showmanship” as indicative of the professor's misuse of the “classroom to live out some strange vision of himself and that struck me as a misappropriation of a teacher's power.”
In Torts, the author revealed being overwhelmed, confused, and bewildered by William Zechman's “goddamn questions,” “crazy hypos,” and “elaborate hypothetical situations”—“If battery is a mere offensive touching, is it battery to kiss a woman good night, if she demurely says no? To push a man off a bridge that's about to collapse? Or does consent somehow cure those wrongs?” In Property, as taught by Isaac Fowler, the author incredulously noted that “clear[ly] nobody understood” Estates in Land, “a set of medieval rules which still govern many aspects of the conveyance of real estate.”
Turow's recount of his involvement in the moot court competition, known as “Ames,” was particularly hilarious. His team of two were assigned to a defamation case. His Ames partner however ludicrously and stubbornly insisted on sticking to his “half-assed theory,” on proving his “screwball theory,” and on championing “an erratic legal theory of his own;” His partner made a monumental fool of himself.
The theme of competition is inevitably present in this memoir of one enrolled in an Ivy League school. The author spoke uneasily of the success, achievement, and competition hysteria that engulfed the school—students who “seemed to make frighteningly penetrating comments every time;” the prickly fear of “a group of silent, all-knowing automatons hidden in the section;” the shocking and absolutely unsettling finding that a section-mate “read Perini's [Contracts] hornbook over the summer;” and the highly “disconcerting” discovery that “classmates had been observed in the library reading law review articles, sections of the treatises, the illustrative cases noted in the casebooks.” In another queer instance, a seemingly pompous student named Harold Hochschild “had a policy of talking to no one when he studied” as he would not tolerate being interrupted in the midst of such a “glorious task.”
Turow discerned the incessant and fanatical obsession of fellow students to make the Harvard Law Review; being on the Review is compared to “being on the Supreme Court of law reviews.” He detected the tremendously “complicated personal politics of speaking in class,” of the “disapproval,” “amused disdain,” and “a kind of veiled animosity” directed towards the regular talkers. He even sensed the Socratic method as venturing beyond its accepted domain, and into perpetuating “competition between professors and students.”
Regarding the school culture, Turow boldly proclaimed that “the whole university is suffused in such crazy pretense, a kind of puritan faith in the divine specialness of the place and its inhabitants,” and referred to it as “upper-class parochialism.” He alluded to HLS as a “legal pressure cooker;” remarked on the “trappings of success, Harvard Law School style,” and even elaborately expressed the paramount importance of grades and exams, “superachievers in an era of grade inflation, many people were despondent about Bs.” He recounted the infamous case of “The Incident,” the piece of “student weaponry” of hissing, and even once declared about the “rumor mongering and mass paranoia that had lately been driving me nuts.”
The author certainly underscored the challenges of a legal education. He impressed upon readers the formidably arduous reviewing entailed by a mere two exams—a coverage of around “1,800 pages of cases, all of it dense reading and much of it worth remembering,” in addition to “over 500 pages of class notes, not to mention the hornbooks, outlines, and briefs, many of which I was actively consulting.” The author introduces another complicating factor—the fact that “even on second encounter, none of that material was instantly comprehensible.” In Criminal Law, a “complicated hypo” assignment involving the Model Penal Code was said to result in “hours of excruciatingly careful reading,” compounded by the tedious process to “reconcile apparent contradictions.”
It was relatively refreshing to read the author's take on the otherworldliness and peculiarity of the legal language to a first-year law student—it seemed like 'a kind of Berlitz assault in “Legal,”' a language “full of impossible French and Latin terms—assize, assumpsit, demurrer, quare clausum fregit,” perplexing words like “estoppel and replevin,” or complex terms such as “quasi in rem jurisdiction, the parol evidence rule”, and “promissory estoppel.”
Turow conveyed the evidently magnified embarrassments one endured at such a reputable university. He expressed feeling “corrosively ashamed” for contributing an erroneous answer on “attempted manslaughter” in a class, and pointed out the enduring shame which resulted from a disastrous Legal Methods oral argument—he fiercely tried “to punch holes in my own best arguments,” and “fought back blindly.”
The author contemplated certain effects of law school education. He once commented to a friend, saying that “legal thinking is nasty,” as it “involved being suspicious and distrustful,” it encouraged looking for “loopholes and ambiguities,” and inferring from silences. He likened legal thinking to a “grimly literal, linear, step-by-step process of thought” that breeds “rigidity,” and which threatens to seep into one's interpersonal life and wreck havoc. He communicated the growing “cynicism,” where fellow students felt they were being “indoctrinated”—“being limited, harmed, by the education, forced to substitute dry reason for emotion, to cultivate opinions which were 'rational' but which had no roots in the experience, the life they'd had before,” and “being forced to identify with rules and social notions that they didn't really agree with.”
Regarding the author's psychological health, it was upsetting to learn of his initial optimism and lightheartedness that dwindled into a “grand swell of pain and dread and confusion;” His initial harmless jokes such as “maybe I was the dumbest guy around,” sadly grew into a full-fledged sense that “I was a ludicrous, miserable, unworthy failure.” He recognized being painfully aware of “the kind of downward spiral I seemed to be on, these worsening screw-ups, this deepening hurt and fright.” The recurring theme of meeting “my enemy” in the book also eventually came to be defined as “that funny, indefinite collection of shadowy and unnerving recognitions about myself.” In an instance, an incredibly beautiful metaphor was used—1Ls carry around “a lot of delicate psychological china that's bound to be damaged somewhat with any abnormal shaking and strain.”
In the afterword, the author interestingly mentioned his subsequent employment as a criminal prosecutor at the United States Attorney's Office in Chicago. He was principally involved in public-corruption cases, where he prosecuted a judge, lawyers, and even “helped prosecute the Attorney General of Illinois.” Particularly piercing as well was Turow's contention that “law school is about training legal scholars,” and teaching students “to think like law professors” rather than to “think like lawyers.”
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.