One L by Scott Turow

One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School
Scott Turow
Penguin, December 2010
First published in 1978
ISBN13: 9780143119029
288 pages

I never, ever had a desire to go to law school, but for some reason this book called to me. Recently, and I don’t remember where, it was recommended as a good memoir. And then I kept running into it at the bookstore where I work. It was on sale for $3.99, so how could I resist? I haven’t read any of Turow’s legal thrillers, yet, but I may now.

One L is the story of Turow’s first year at Harvard Law School in 1977. He covers the emotional ups and downs of that first year and how and why he and his peers changed for the better or became jaded. Turow had a contract to write the book before he started his first year and kept a journal in which he wrote several times a week throughout that first year.

This is not a straightforward how-to-make-it-through-law-school book. Its more about the emotional roller coaster ride that people experience when being initiated into a new system. For me, it read like a mash-up between my experience of Marine Corps boot camp and graduate school in literature. The one direct bit of advice Turow offers to those considering law school is to study economics before you get there.

Although the book, written in the late 70s, doesn’t seem dated in any way that hampers the reading of it (there are a few “old fashioned” things that will make you smile if you’re of a certain age, such as Turow’s use of an electric typewriter when writing exams), it does seem a little dated in that I think first year law students–first year anythings–are better prepared now for such endeavors as law school than people were in the 1970s and earlier. Or at least they have a better chance of being prepared, intellectually, emotionally, and physically.

Why? Because it seems like people talk more about the emotional aspects of their experiences and there are many more resources out there that are accessible to more people, particularly mega bookstores with large reference sections and the internet. And these days you can find a memoir on just about anything. Granted it’s one person’s experience, but sometimes even that can be helpful, take the edge off one’s anxiety, or lead to more resources. My sister has two teenage kids and we have been struck by the difference in approach from how she and her peers in high school thought about college and went about applying to college in the 1970s and how her eldest child is currently being groomed by teachers for college as a sophomore in high school. I couldn’t help think of this difference while reading One L and thinking that people now entering Harvard Law cannot possibly be as naive as Turow and his group were. Turow was even from a rather privileged lot, as he says: New Trier High School, Amherst College, then the Stanford University Creative Writing Center after that.

Still, what keeps this book fresh is its emphasis on the emotional experience of going through such an intense initiation into a new language, a new way of thinking, and a new profession. I image that even if today’s One Ls aren’t as naive, they still experience the same mind-fuck that comes with indoctrination into a highly competitive and relatively closed society.  And I suppose the bottom line is that although listening to others’ experiences and reading about what to expect might help prepare people for the work load and confusion headed their way, no amount of reading or advice can ever truly take the place of the reality of going through such an intense experience.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in law school, of course, but also to those who are interested in the legal system, American higher education in the 1970s, or memoir in general.

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