Modern Legal Thriller

One adaptation to benefit from actual filming in Cambridge was perhaps one of the most famous adaptations of the modern legal thriller – John Grisham’s The Firm.  In the novel, the main character, Mitch McDeere – played in the film by Tom Cruise – graduates third in his class from Harvard Law School.  Early scenes depict on-campus and off-campus recruiting from a variety of firms, but no offer is as attractive as that from Bendini, Lambert and Locke, a small tax law firm based in Memphis, Tennessee.  The story gave rise to a television show that continued Mitch’s story 10 years after the events of the novel and film. 

While many of Grisham’s novels are set in the South and feature graduates from other law schools, his 25th fictional novel once again features a Harvard Law School graduate as the protagonist.  The Litigators, published in 2011, features David Zinc, an associate who leaves a sweatshop-style Chicago firm for a small practice of self-proclaimed ambulance chasers and takes on a nation-wide class action case that pits him against his old firm.  In comparison to The Firm, this novel presents a much different perspective on the life of a Harvard Law School graduate and relies more heavily on dark humor, in addition to the signature Grisham twists and turns, to engage the reader.

Our own Harvard Law School faculty members have also contributed as authors to the body of legal fiction.  In his 1994 novel, The Advocate’s Devil, Alan Dershowitz introduces us to Abe Ringel, a Harvard Law School alumnus and defense attorney who is called upon to represent Joe Campbell, a Knicks basketball player accused of rape.  Although Dershowitz relies on the type of sensational legal twists and turns the reader has come to expect from the genre, he also makes a larger point about the ethical dilemmas faced by attorneys.  

Alumni are not the only protagonists portrayed in fiction. Several legal thrillers involve Harvard Law School faculty in their roles as practicing attorneys.  Joseph Finder’s 1998 novel, High Crimes, features professor Claire Heller Chapman, a defense attorney and criminal law professor who is confronted with the news that her husband, Tom Chapman has been secretly living a double life.  Finder describes Professor Heller's classroom stating: “Her criminal law students sat in long arcs that radiated outward from the front of the room like the rings around Saturn. At Harvard Law School, the professor was construed as a deity.” 

Finder’s words not only conjure familiar imagery for any current or former Harvard Law School Affiliate, they also reinforce the sets and direction used in the filming of The Paper Chase, demonstrating that across the span of genres and time, depictions of Harvard Law School in literature remain consistently focused on the gravity that exists between faculty, students, and the school.