Memoir & Fiction

Two Years Before the Mast cover art

The earliest identified link to the law school in fiction is actually part of a memoir – an arguable line between fiction and non-fiction, but as we will see, a common form in depictions of Harvard Law School. 

In 1840, Harvard Law School graduate, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., published Two Years Before the Mast, a memoir written after a two-year sea voyage starting in 1834. While an undergraduate at Harvard College, Dana had an attack of the measles which affected his vision. Thinking it might help his sight, Dana left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn on the brig Pilgrim. He returned to Massachusetts two years later aboard the Alert. He kept a diary throughout the voyage, and, after returning, wrote Two Years Before the Mast. He graduated from the law school in 1837 and later received an Honorary Doctor of Laws in 1866 alongside colleague Ralph Waldo Emerson. A film adaptation of Two Years Before the Mast was released in 1946.

Perhaps the most well-known fictional depiction of Harvard Law School, The Paper Chase, is a 1970 novel written by John Jay Osborn, Jr., who wrote the book during his time at Harvard. The story focuses on Hart, a first-year law student and his attempts to impress Professor Charles Kingsfield, the iconic intimidating contracts instructor, who also happens to be the father of the woman Hart is seeing.  The novel inspired the 1973 film and a television series, which ran from 1978 to 1979 and from 1983 to 1986. The law school commemorated the 40th anniversary of the film in 2013. 

Another depiction by a Harvard Law School Alumnus comes from Scott Turow, who published his journal from his first year of law school in 1977: the aptly named One-L.  Turow graduated in 1978 and went on to publish 10 novels in the decades that followed, all while maintaining an active legal practice and serving in political office.  Turow’s 1987 novel, Presumed Innocent, changed the notion of legal thrillers as a marginalized subgenre to a dominating force in the fiction market, paving the way for authors like John Grisham and Joseph Finder (see more in our section on the Modern Legal Thriller).