Unromantic 'Paper Chase'

One L by Scott Turow G.P. Putnam's Sons; 300 pages; $8.95

IF SCOTT TUROW had gone to law school anywhere but Harvard, he couldn't have written a book about his first year. Or at least, he couldn't have gotten it published. It says a lot about the publishing industry in America that One L, all 300 pages of it, could appear in bookstores throughout the country: not satisfied with the coverage given the Harvard Law School in Paper Chase and Love Story, G.P. Putnam's Sons had to jump into the act--an act that doesn't exist, say, for law schools at the University of Wisconsin or Boston University.

It isn't really Turow's fault that Harvard's name carries the prestige it does, but he certainly goes out of his way to exploit it. He prefaces his book--essentially a blow-by-blow account or his first year--with his excuse, suggesting he decided to write about Harvard because it's the oldest and biggest law school (which he says makes the experience of students here exemplary of all law students in America), and, of course, because he goes here. Nonsense. One L is a paean to status symbols, a description of Turow's willing indoctrination into the country's corporate elite.

Formerly a teacher of creative writing at Stanford--you wouldn't know it from the prose in One L, which has outrageous errors like "least painless" instead of "most painless" or "least painful"--Turow says he came to Harvard to meet his enemy. Who is the enemy? Good question. For most of One L, Turow wanders around that point, never quite explaining the theme that's supposed to tie the daily experiences together. Is it the legal system as it sustains class society and the state? Is it Harvard Law School as it breeds privilege and promotes inequality? Just what enemy prompted Turow, who apparently considers himself a left-winger from the late '60s, to enroll?

Eventually, we understand. Turow has met the enemy, and it is he. It is his own ambition, his own desire to achieve the trappings of success that did not accompany his career as a teacher, that he must face. If he can survive the tensions of the Socratic method in Contracts, if he can make it through the endless hours of case preparation, if he can surmount the embarrassment of blowing his presentation in the Ames Court contest, why then, Scott Turow can survive anything. "That driven quest for prominence which brings us here," he writes, "leads us, once we arrive to an almost inescapable temptation to scramble, despite obstacles and ugliness and bruises, for what sometimes looks to all of us to be the very top of the tallest heap."

In many ways, Harvard Law School is the top of the American corporate heap, but Turow fails completely to examine what that system means for those who have not attained the pinnacle. His only attempt at such critical evaluation comes in the middle of the book, when he describes a speech by Ralph Nader. Nader asks whose law is being taught here, who benefits from the current legal system. "How many sharecroppers," Nader asks his Law School audience, "do you think sue Minute Maid?" For a few hours, Turow says, he was convinced that Nader was right; he could use his education for a political purpose, to help the downtrodden rather than to do the down trodding. But as he drove home, he returned to his previous stand: his enemy was the pressure to achieve, not the system that creates that pressure.

IT BECOMES more and more clear as Turow goes through the year that he will end up a corporate lawyer, in one of those big firms that handle the accounts of the largest, least lovable companies. Turow's first-year class was polled by the Harvard chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, with astonishing results: a large segment of the first-year class did not want to end up practising corporate law, but expected it would end up doing just that after graduating from Harvard. He writes, "For those students, the money, the power, the training, the quality of practice all make joining the big firms inevitable." Turow is a little squeamish about admitting his own career goals, but by the end of the book, there is little question about where he's headed.

Not that Turow thinks life at the Law School is perfect. But his criticisms are mild, centering on its institutional dislike of change and its ties to traditional legal education. One is forced to ask why he came to such an ivy-covered school if he wanted a looser kind of place. The Law School has many of the flaws that undergraduates complain of at the College: distant, overly august faculty members, unnecessary pressure, obnoxiously self-assured classmates, and all the other hallmarks of a school that is a little bit too preoccupied with itself. The Law School has other problems in addition, things like the lack of a real student community (a large share of each class is married, and even more students live off campus), but few of them will be really interesting to outsiders. Turow's account won't be interesting to many insiders, either; he offers few insights, and fewer suggestions for improvement.

All in all, this is a remarkably silly book. If it really wanted to get into the Paper Chase routine, Putnam's would have done better publishing the memoirs of a Law School custodian; he, at least, might have a new angle on the place, and would certainly have more interesting anecdotes. Turow would have done better spending less time writing the book, and more time preparing for Contracts.