One L, by Scott Turow

Book review by Erin Lindsay Calkins. Published July 2008, last updated March 2011.

One L, by Scott Turow

One LWhen my lawyer friends learn that I’m going to law school, inevitably they ask if I have read One L. And with good reason: Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School is an iconic primer on life during the first year of law school.

I was surprised, then, to flip open the cover and discover that it had been published in 1977. How could a book published 30 years ago be relevant to my own 1L year, in 2008?

The answer is apparent within the first few pages. Turow begins the book by describing the difficulty of gaining admission to top law schools, the rigid emphasis on grades and LSAT scores, and the minutiae involved in selecting each class. It could have been written yesterday.

One L is a chronological account of Turow’s first year at Harvard. His tone is first anxious, then exhausted and then cynical, much like in a private’s letters home from boot camp. Like the majority of 1Ls around the country, both then and now, Turow studies the standard docket of Civil Procedure, Torts, Contracts, and the like. During the early weeks he is overcome with intellectual excitement, in spite of the nerves he feels as a subject of the Socratic method, wielded most sharply by his Contracts professor, Rudolph Perini. Perini is simultaneously brilliant and cruel; the anticipation of his in-class interrogations throws many students—Turow included—into a daily panic. Nevertheless, Turow harbors an unabashed admiration of both the man and the method as his curious mind stretches to new lengths by the intricacies of the law.

As the fall semester progresses, however, the author’s early passion is replaced by ambivalence. The specter of exams increases Turow’s stress; his stress corrodes his character and his marriage. We observe a series of uncomfortable vignettes: Turow’s wife, struggling to maintain her own career in Boston, rarely voices her frustration with her absent husband. Although he is pained by her loneliness and isolation, Turow cannot bring himself to leave the library. In addition to reflecting the author’s diminishing capacity for relationships, his wife also provides an important foil for the insular environment of HLS. In one instance she accompanies Turow to class and witnesses the 1Ls fervently discussing whether or not to publicly chastise a professor for his harsh Socratic interchange. We feel, along with Annette, the irrelevance of the decision to the world outside of Harvard. Turow is also pained when he realizes that his wife has recognized the folly and self-import. Again, however, his ambitions prevent him from speaking up.

During the fervent months leading up to finals, Turow also elects to block membership in his study group to a fellow student. Ostensibly, the reason is that the student had not contributed sufficient notes or preparation to the group and would not have enough time to do so before the first exam. But suddenly, Turow realizes that his strategy for success had become destructive, both to himself and to his classmates. Again, the contemporary relevance of One L becomes clear as it strikes a note of perennial familiarity. Hearing stories of competitive students behaving badly, we all tell ourselves that in our 1L year, we will be different. Turow is ashamed to realize that he is, in fact, the same.

Unsettled by the effect that the first semester of law school has had on his personality, Turow slides into a gradual indifference during his final few months as a 1L. While the memoir remains engaging, the protagonist grows increasingly bland, unwilling to emotionally invest in a system that he believes has done him wrong. Turow is contrite in the final pages, admitting that he had earned decent grades after all, but was changed for the worse.

While the memoir is entertaining—and indeed, instructive—its end is utterly disappointing. Turow blames the changes he observed in himself and in his classmates on the HLS system. However, nowhere in One L does Turow admit the possibility that fault was not in the system, but in his own inability to resist it.

Still, there are bits of advice for the aspiring law student that might be distilled from One L:

  1. Despite all apparent evidence to the contrary, you are not far less intelligent than your classmates. The scramble for law school admissions ensures that students within a particular class at a particular school are quite evenly ranked.
  2. Spend more time in the library and less time stressing about the adequacy of your study group, or your study group’s outline.
  3. Treat your classmates, and your professors, with generosity and compassion.
  4. Cling tightly to your sense of right and wrong.

The latest edition of the book ends with an Afterward written ten years after One L’s initial publication. Here again I searched for an admission that perhaps Turow’s youth and naiveté had contributed to his difficult experience in his first year of law school. I was disappointed. Turow devotes 15 pages to the ways that the law school system should change in order to better accommodate students and lawyers. I hoped for him to turn inward; to see if those injuries to his character sustained during law school had been permanent, or if he had managed, in his professional life, to repair himself. Unfortunately, there was indication of neither.

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