Reflections on One-L

In 1977, Scott Turow published One-L, a lightly fictionalized memoir of Turow’s first year at Harvard Law School. Since then, One-L has become one of the most commonly recommended books for prospective law students.

Earlier this year, I asked some ADR professors for reflections on One-L, and you can read their responses below. The book doesn’t have much by way of ADR courses or pedagogy, of course (it is a rather traditional affair), so I wondered how One-L may have contributed to the development of those who ended up teaching ADR.

I myself reread One-L a couple of years ago. I enjoyed it but it made me feel insecure, like maybe I hadn’t plumbed the intellectual depths during my time in law school and maybe I wasn’t giving my own students a rigorous enough experience of legal education. Were Turow and his classmates truly that immersed in their learning, and were the professors truly that compelling? Of course, the story format makes Turow’s description of his experience more concentrated than anyone’s real-life experience can be, and I certainly don’t want to remystify law school for myself. But it’s hard not to wonder whether something has been lost. Could the things I love so much — innovative teaching, reimagined professional identities, alternative practice, expanded research boundaries, profound diversity — have been partly responsible for this loss I feel?

I am grateful to Cynthia Alkon, Ron Aronovsky, Michael Moffitt, and Andrea Kupfer Schneider for taking to time to provide their thoughts on One-L, and welcome further thoughts and reflections.

Cynthia Alkon (Texas A&M)
I read One-L a few months before I started law school. I wasn’t going to Harvard. I had no interest in competing with anyone for anything. On the face of it, I had very little in common with Scott Turrow. But, I went to law school long before the internet. It was hard to get information about what law school was going to be like. I vaguely remember watching The Paper Chase, but otherwise, there wasn’t much information. At the time, One-L seemed like required reading for everyone before starting law school.

As I think about it now, the book made a few things perfectly clear: law students will suffer, law school is hard work, law students can’t change these facts so they just have to suck it up and do the work. My perspective on the lessons from the book is different now, particularly as this year I have been doing the job of Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. As an Associate Dean, I spend no small amount of time talking to students who have come into my office to complain about things. They complain about classes, they complain about professors, they complain about their fellow students, and they complain that they have too much assigned reading. I had one student declare that “this is the only class in three years that hasn’t been excellent”….so, of course, she had to come in and complain to me about this one class.

It is clear to me that this generation of students doesn’t accept any of One-L’s three lessons. Today’s law students were not indoctrinated with the helplessness that One-L, and my fellow law students, seemed to take for granted. I thought changing the world would start with graduation, and that individual students could not make change within legal education. The students who I meet with don’t accept this idea for one minute. They want change. They want it immediately. And, they think that asking for change will bring immediate change. I am often amazed at what complaints some students think are appropriate to bring to an Associate Dean, but I would like to think it comes from students feeling empowered to make change.

Today’s law students were also not indoctrinated to accept that law school inevitably involves hard work or suffering. On many days I am left wondering how there are students who somehow don’t understand that learning is hard work and that there is no substitute for hard work. But, I do appreciate that they do not accept that law school must involve suffering—and that so many are not shy about demanding changes, even when I disagree with the demands. My current job would be much easier if more of our students had read and internalized what I remember to be the lessons from One-L. But, on balance, legal education is better when our students demand more and are active participants in bringing change.

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Ron Aronovsky (Southwestern)
I started law school in 1977, the year One-L was published. I read One-L during law school and found it engrossing, but at the time it did not have a dramatic impact on me. This, perhaps, is explained by the fact that I saw The Paper Chase the night before I started law school. This wasn’t such a good idea. Starting law school the day after spending two hours with Professor Kingsfield was sufficiently traumatizing that it may have inoculated me at the time from a stronger emotional reaction to the saga of first year experiences chronicled by Scott Turow.

I read One-L again last year after Jen mentioned to me that the 40th anniversary of its publication was approaching. It was a fascinating and surprisingly emotional experience. I found myself particularly focused on professors’ effect on students. While I am sure that my school (Berkeley) was different in many ways from Harvard in the 1970s, One-L nevertheless vividly brought back the wonder, joy, terror, stimulation and excitement that was my 1L experience. More powerfully, re-reading One-L made me think of my students. Despite the many changes in legal education over the past forty years, One-L brought home the fact that, even though context changes with time (whether over one decade or four), many of the personal, emotional and academic challenges our students wrestle with today at their core are the same as those I encountered (along with my classmates and Scott Turow’s characters). So my “quick hit” on One-L is gratitude for reminding me to be empathetic and ever-sensitive about the impact a teacher can have on a student as a human being, not just as a budding professional.

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Michael Moffitt (Oregon)
One-L was an important part of my legal education… I think.

I read One-L before I went to law school because I was desperate. I knew no lawyers. I knew no one who had gone to law school. I was scared. And for reasons that now escape me, I thought One-L would give me the keys not necessarily to success, but at least to survival. Never mind that I do not believe the book ever claimed to provide any such thing. I intuited that this book would help me would before I even got past the cover. I was wise in those sorts of ways at that point in my life.

I was desperate for a guide. I found that guide in One-L. Never mind that Turow’s account was unmistakably one person’s experience, rather than a survey of the range of possible experiences one might have, or even a prediction about what a typical person’s experience might be. Even then, I would never have picked up one person’s account of her or his marriage and taken that as a guide to married life. Even then, I would never have read one person’s account of parenting, or of aging, or of anything, and treated it as so laden with prediction and prescription. But I did with One-L.

I have a clear memory of making a decision about joining a study group based on One-L’s description of a study group. I have a clear memory of quitting a study group for the same reason. And I have an utterly vivid memory of sitting in my law school dorm room, absolutely convinced that I needed only to figure out “the game.” It was abundantly clear that I needed to see beyond what the professors were telling me I needed to do. For reasons I can no longer articulate, my distrust of my assigned professors was neither temporary nor personal. But One-L was a conscious part of my thinking throughout that first year.

Now, going on almost twenty years as a law professor, I know that none of my students are reading or misreading personalized accounts of law school. Nor are they skeptical of any of my motivations. Perhaps they wonder modestly about the motivations of a couple of my faculty colleagues. I might not even fault the students for wondering about that. But me? *I* am the professor to be trusted, not the master of a game to be bested. I tell my students what I see to be in their best interests, and I’m sure they see that.

As a professor, I needn’t concern myself with One-L. I’ve not bothered to read it since I was a 2L. Nor have I read the legion of books and websites that have followed. Why should I? I can’t imagine that any of my students has ever felt any of the things I felt as a student when I stumbled upon One-L.

* * *

Andrea Kupfer Schneider (Marquette)
I did not read One-L in advance of going to law school–I was living abroad the year before and purposely trying to detach from the frenzy leading up to law school. So I read the book after I completed by first year and remember being mostly amused. To me, he tells this story of being overwhelmed and scared and working all the time and that was not my experience at all. So I was more amused than shocked.

Later, once I had kids, it occurred to me that had I been trying to write a book and have a brand new baby and do my first year of law school, I likely also would have had the miserable first year that Scott Turow described! In some ways, what did he expect the first year to look like with all of those responsibilities. In any case, his experience was not the same as mine, for sure. I did not find the professors awful or mean, I generally liked my classmates, I had a social life, and I got plenty of sleep when I needed it.

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Do you have any thoughts to share on One-L? If so, post in the comments or forward along to me!

5 thoughts on “Reflections on One-L”

  1. Great post, everyone. I think it is useful to reflect on our experiences as law students and faculty and those of today’s students.

  2. I also read One-L before going to law school. Having not refreshed my memory on the book, I can give at least one impression. At the end of reading that book, my first thought was: I’M SO GLAD I’M GOING TO OHIO STATE AND NOT HARVARD!!!

    Of course, the culture of law school had changed between 1977 and 2001, but I do remember the admissions process focusing on the community of the law school and among the student populations. More than one person noted that students “don’t hide the library books!” and maintained a collegial atmosphere despite the competition inherent in law school.

    If we fast forward another 15+ years, that sense of community is one of the main selling points that we use in our admissions process (and I’m sure Nebraska Law is not the only one!). I hear from students, alumni, and my colleagues that our community is one of the best things that we have at our institution.

    How much have things changed!

  3. Grateful for the thoughtful reflections. Why ONE L continues to engage readers, especially those with. a law school connection, I may not be able to explain, but I know from my email that it does. Forty years later, no author could ask for more

  4. Kristen, thank you for posting! Your comment reminds me of one general difference between teaching negotiation to Harvard and Oregon students — just generally speaking, I have had to work more with my Oregon students on being competitive (which wasn’t as much of a focus with Harvard students). Oregon students are already quite cooperative and understand the value of cultivating good relationships. They are not always as skilled at pushing for the best deal or watching out for their own interests.

    Scott Turow, thank you for weighing in — you have had such a sustained impact on the legal academy, it’s incredible and thrilling.

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