For years, and for no good reason, I avoided reading One L, Scott Turow’s account of his first year at Harvard Law School. I’ve now corrected that omission in my legal education. All of you prospective law students should read this book.
30 years after its publication some of the book is dated: starting salaries for first-year associates are quaint, to point to a minor example, and the Socratic Method is not used as unflinchingly today as it was in his contracts class. As a graduate of Northeastern University School of Law (“the nation’s premier public interest law school”), some of what he relates was outside my experience. NUSL’s use of written course evaluations instead of letter grades and lack of a competitive law review selection process (because it does not have a law review) yield a materially different student experience in many important ways. Despite those differences Turow’s description of his uncertainty, frustration, mountainous work load, and charged classroom experiences resonated deeply.
One reason is that Turow is a terrific writer. Before going to law school he taught creative writing at Stanford. His 1987 first novel Presumed Innocent is an engrossing murder mystery that I read essentially non-stop over the course of 24 hours, going into my job as an associate in a large corporate law firm hours late because I couldn’t put it down. I mean I literally could not put it down–I’d pinched it from my wife and had I let it out of my hands she would have taken it back. (Does the fact that I was far more engrossed in a law-themed novel than my law practice offer any insights into the vagaries of a legal career? Nahhh.) The only similarities he shares with John Grisham are (1) they are both lawyers and (2) they both write fiction. Turow’s novels are more character-driven than Grisham’s plot-driven potboilers.
Turow’s unblinking self-honesty makes One L compelling. He does not paint himself heroically. He narrates how he submitted to the power of the permeating, competitive insanity that results when a few hundred very smart Type A personalities engage in the same activity. He captures the fear, claustrophobia, foxhole humor, and self-doubt that are universal to the first year of law school.