'One-L' - a survivor's tale

Few Harvard Law graduates have done more to shape their school's image than author Scott Turow. His description of life as a "One-L," in the 1977 book with the same name, injected the term into popular culture.

Yet Mr. Turow says he wrote the book by chance, after mentioning to his agent that no one had authored a first-person account of a law student's experience.

In the resulting journal about surviving the 1975-76 school year, Turow described being "stricken with acute feelings of panic, depression," and "indefinite need."

And that's only page one.

" 'One-L' filled a vacuum," says Turow, who came to Harvard after teaching creative writing at Stanford. Turow worked as a federal prosecutor, joined a Chicago law firm, and wrote several bestselling novels, including "Presumed Innocent," after graduating in 1978.

Students say Turow's dramatic account quickly joined "The Paper Chase" as the yardstick for judging student life at Harvard.

"I expected to be a lot more intimidated, based on my pre-enrollment reading of 'Paper Chase' and 'One-L,' and was pleasantly surprised at the end of the day," says Chicago attorney Michelle Burke, who enrolled at Harvard soon after "One-L" was published.

Ms. Burke's classmate Peter Knapp believes some students tried to make their experience feel more like what they read. "The novel worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy for a lot of people," says Mr. Knapp, now a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. "They ... thought they were being shortchanged unless they had a professor who used the Socratic method brutally."

Harvard Law Prof. Arthur Miller, who was portrayed as Prof. Rudolph Perini in the book, says Turow's account is "neither fact nor fiction." He suggests Turow, like many students, exaggerated the intensity of his ordeal for dramatic effect.

"The third-year students try to convince first-year students that there will be blood on the floor," Mr. Miller says.

But more than two decades after publication, Turow stands by his account.

"Although my own experience was refracted through a keenly neurotic time in my life, there has to have been enough truth in many of my observations to give the book life over a generation," he says.

Judging by a recent lunchtime crowd at the school, students may still read the book but take it less seriously.

"That book should not affect anyone's decision to come here," says first-year student Rebecca Chang of Wayne, N.J. "Nothing like that has happened to me."

Then again, finals are still three months away.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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