From chasing paper to business

the-scavenger-hunt-john-housemanI’m surprised ATL hasn’t said anything (at least nothing I could find) about the death of attorney and author John Jay Osborn Jr. On reflection, that’s not all that surprising since the only people who would say anything at all would realize his name is of dinosaur vintage like mine. By the early 1970s, however, Osborn was famous. He wrote the book The Paper Chase, based on his freshman year at Harvard Law School, and a few years later it became a movie and of course a TV show that aired for one season on CBS and three seasons on Showtime .

John Houseman won the Academy Award (and other awards) for Best Supporting Actor as contract professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. (Of course, living in LaLa land you knew there had to be a Hollywood connection.)

Amazon’s site lists a 40th anniversary edition (nothing over a 50th, though). Is there anyone who graduated from law school in the 1970s who still remembers the book or at least the movie or TV series? Anyone younger than a dinosaur who read the book and/or watched the movie and/or the TV show and thought law school was the thing to do?

The book was published in 1971 when a confluence of factors began to make law school more attractive. One was conscription and the possibility of a reprieve to avoid getting caught up in the turmoil of the Vietnam War, which was hugely unpopular at the time but was still going on. Another was the Second Wave Feminism Movement, women like me who didn’t go to college just to get a Mrs. but who wanted to pursue professional careers, such as doctors and lawyers. I got into an argument with my then boyfriend who went to UC San Francisco Medical School and wanted me to do Mrs. Thing. This relationship went pffft (not a legal term).

When the film The Paper Chase came out a few years later in 1973, everyone I knew (and that was limited to law school classmates, because who had time for friendships outside of school?) thought the film was right. We were in our first-year contract class (we didn’t have John Houseman as a professor), but an assistant student who wrote the most diabolical exams. I signed contracts, but it wasn’t easy.

We all felt that the film portrayed the horrors of the first year well. Finding study partners, making outlines (remember?), learning to research (books and shepards, internet research coming decades later), fear of being approached in class and being unprepared (or at least not as prepared as the professor expects), Writing practice exams and so on, accompanied by general freaking out when we realized that the entire first year depended on final grades.

It may have been in the book, it wasn’t in the film, but I remember the professor who conducted the introductory course for my new course, which was the first day course at Whittier Law, then known as Beverly College of Law. The professor said in a stentorian voice, “Look left, look right, and two-thirds of you won’t be here past your first year.” He was right. The school flunked students it didn’t think would pass the bar exam.

The New York Times obituary stated that Osborn had a varied legal career; He was a clerk, worked briefly at Biglaw, taught contract law (following in the fictional footsteps of Professor Kingsfield) and was an estate planning attorney. His career, like so many others in the profession, took various twists and turns throughout his lifetime. Despite what peeps may say, there are many options in the law, it’s just a matter of how you want to spend your professional life.

For another cruise down memory lane, how many dinosaurs remember when The American Lawyer first broke into the legal world? In the mid to late 1970s, the United States Supreme Court blew down the doors to professional secrecy in two cases just a few years apart. First there was Bates v. Arizona Attorney’s Officewhich stated that lawyers had the right to advertise their services and then, a few years later, Goldfarb vs. Virginia State Bar, which stated that lawyers are active in commerce and are therefore no longer exempt from antitrust law. Bye-bye, fee schedules, attorneys were now free to charge whatever the traffic would carry.

Shortly thereafter, Steven Brill founded The American Lawyer because he felt the time was right for transparency about the law firm (aka Biglaw) and its inner workings, specifically myriad financial details, earnings, profits per partner and all of those things were just kept behind closed doors doors talked about. A friend of mine who was practicing in Manhattan at the time told me that American Lawyer “moved quickly from the bathroom (behind closed doors) to each partner’s inbox and into the eager hands of each associate.” It was from bathroom to boardroom, People magazine for lawyers.

How The American Lawyer transformed the profession is discussed at length in a chapter of David Enrich’s new book, Servants of the Damned, which details the rise of the mega-firm, particularly Jones Day, and its close relationship with the former president. It’s a fascinating read; I couldn’t put it down.

I wonder what the profession would be like today without The American Lawyer. Brill admits in the book that he created a monster, and indeed he did. Would the profession be less cutthroat and more civil? Would it be more collegial and less “eat what you kill”? Her thoughts?


old lady lawyer elderly woman grandmother granny laptop computerJill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers working as a lawyer in a kinder, gentler time. She has had a varied legal career, including stints as an assistant district attorney, a solo practice and several senior in-house appearances. She now mediates full-time, which gives her a chance to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in between interact — it’s not always polite. You can reach them by email at [email protected].

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