Law School Up Close

One L - Book Review

Title: One L

Author: Scott Turow

Pages: 298

Published: 1977

A True Cult Classic

One L by Scott Turow is the “journal” of a first year Turow at Harvard Law School (HLS). I put journal in parentheses because I imagine that artistic liberties have been taken to some extent by Turow to make the journal entries in the book more entertaining. Either way, the book is paginated not only by parts (usually a month or two) but also by specific dates of journal entries. It is a fascinating read, with a “cult-classic” type of following, selling nearly 30,000 books per year.

Unlike the other books that I have reviewed on this site thus far, this one is emotionally gripping throughout and in some cases makes 1L seem more like an impending doom than the exciting next step of life. Don’t get me wrong, I thought that it was a well-written, salt of the earth, and enlightening tale of a character whose mannerisms and expectations at the outset may remind you in some ways of your own. In that way it is so powerful. Turow is obviously a driven individual with a strong personal identity and a passion for the law, and yet he still falls victim to torturous emotions and circumstances in his first year, particularly his first semester at the HLS. The book delves into the more subtle aspects of first year that a teacher or other onlooker can not fully encapture. One gets a taste for the competitive psyche that exists in the elite students of our country, and it is both impressive and startling how many hours some of the students work based on Turow’s recollections.

A Primer on Law School and Life in Law School

I think as a prep book this is great in order to give you a more realistic sense of your chances in the battle for first year grades. Instructional books pass along the tips to succeed, but may give you the false sense of security that you are advantaged by the little you get from preparation. One L reminds us that there is another competitor across from you that also wants to be exceptional.

“I feel rotten. I feel wasted. I have finished my first term at the law.”

  • Pg. 196, Scott Turow after Exams

As I mentioned previously, Turow is naturally a relatable character, and you may find yourself in him in parts of the book. He also does an exceptional job developing the characters of those around him. There are many characters that Turow talks about in this book, and it is funny to see the different eccentricities that exist in his circle of peers. The general negativity towards school is surprising to me, but then there is a lot of drama in this class of HLS One L’s.

“Terry popped. His eyes filled with the same outraged gleam I’d seen in the hallways and he leaned forward in a belligerent animal posture. His hands were in fists, and now and then he struck the table. I was afraid he might hit Margo.”

  • Pg. 230, The Brief Review for Ames

Teachers in this book are also well-represented by the author. I think that his depth in portraying the character of the teachers was born from the intense emotions that he experienced in regard to the teachers and their classes. Perini is the classic, fire and ice, cold-hearted professor. He intimidates students with his aggressive use of the Socratic Method, and ripping on students who haven’t properly prepared for the class. Then there is Nicky Morris, the young professor with controversial views about the education. Or is that just his attempt to connect with the students?

“Right now Perini looked mad enough for murder. And Mooney would have to carry that worry for the next five days.”

  • Pg. 151, Turow on Perini after ‘the incident’

The book also touches on the political and social landscape of the time. At one point the author goes to watch Ralph Nader speak, and he is adamant about attending. Nader proceeds to bash on the institution of law schools, despite being an HLS grad himself. It is wild to me that Nader was circulating way back then.

“How many sharecroppers,” he asked “do you think sue Minute Maid?”

  • Pg. 147, Ralph Nader speaking

Final Thoughts

I would recommend this book to anyone with some free time in their summer before law school, and unlike other books of this nature, almost anyone could enjoy reading this book. If you are an undergrad interested in going to law school this would be the book I would go for. Scott Turow is a masterful writer and this book carries with it a rite of passage quality that has become rarer everyday.


Ted Rand