WASHINGTON -- The best seller "A Civil Action" tells the true story of a battle between a bold but flawed plaintiffs' lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann and two big corporations over whether they polluted the drinking water of Woburn, Mass. In the movie that is opening in theaters now, John Travolta portrays &r; Schlichtmann as, if anything, bolder and more flawed.
But in Professor Lewis Grossman's class at American University's law school here -- and at law schools across the country -- Schlichtmann is already a star, foibles and all.
Jonathan Harr's 1995 book about the lawsuit over the leukemia deaths of Woburn children is playing an extraordinary role in what some legal educators describe as a movement to modernize the training of U.S. lawyers.
Across the country, "A Civil Action" is required reading in courses in at least 50 law schools, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Georgetown and here at American University, where it is read in some civil procedures classes, one of the most important an aspiring lawyer will take.
The widespread use of Harr's book illustrates how extensively legal educators have been searching for ways to modify the traditional method of teaching law, made famous in the 1973 movie "The Paper Chase."
For most of this century, "case method" has dominated the training of lawyers. It requires students to read scores of appeals court decisions -- and little else -- and then fend off withering questions from professors.
" 'The Paper Chase' is dead," said Zygmunt Plater, a professor at Boston College Law School who uses Harr's book in his courses. "The old war-of-attrition game of wits -- where the teacher was saying, 'I'm smarter than anybody' -- was shown to be a foolish waste. What you want to do is engage students actively, and this book does it."
At the time of "The Paper Chase," most students at U.S. law schools took only courses based on the traditional case method. It was common for students to graduate from law school without having ever seen a real legal pleading document, met a client or learned much about the real-world workings of the legal system other than through pronouncements of appeals courts reprinted in their textbooks.
The case method is still prevalent. But even the courses using it now often include other approaches, such as the study of documents from litigation. And by the time they graduate after three years, most students have taken several courses experimenting with new teaching methods.
At graduation, many students have not only seen legal documents -- many have drafted them for real clients in clinical courses.
Proponents of the traditional method say it teaches students to think like lawyers. But critics have said for years that it left young lawyers with little appreciation of how to deal with people who become entangled in the legal system.
Harr's book, said Grossman, arrived just when legal educators were developing an appetite for something like it. "The top-down, principle-heavy way of teaching law was starting to crumble, and professors were starting to question whether it was working anymore," he said. "You can view this as a revolution in law teaching."
To the consternation of some traditional educators, law schools have recently tried other new approaches, such as computer simulations of cases and role playing.
Some law schools have even introduced classes on literature in which students read such books as Herman Melville's "Billy Budd" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, and then discuss the legal and ethical issues.
Before "A Civil Action," some professors had used other books about lawsuits. But few of those books had drawn anywhere near as much attention in law schools as Harr's book. Some legal educators say Harr's vivid portrait of the innards of a lawsuit is providing a model of how to teach legal principles through
narratives that show students the effect of the law on people, such as the anguished Woburn families of "A Civil Action."
"For me," said Carrie Menkel-Meadow, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who uses the book in her classes, "it is putting flesh on the bones of what practicing law is all about: the people in cases."
Harr also described the real-world complexities of lawyers' motivations. Schlichtmann was portrayed as an ambitious lawyer who wanted to profit handsomely by doing good works. Harr's narrative dwells on the Porsche Schlichtmann drove and the exclusive restaurants he frequented.
The fascination with the Woburn case goes far beyond simply reading the book. Students study original legal filings from the case. There are Internet sites filled with the scientific evidence from the trial.
Grossman and a colleague from the law school here, Robert Vaughn, are working on a legal textbook dealing entirely with the Woburn case. For the past two years, both professors have been assigning the original legal documents as well as Harr's book as required reading in courses on the rules of civil law practice that they structure entirely around the Woburn case. What is striking about this is that this class, in law schools, is one of a handful of core courses.
Law schools hold conferences to discuss the case, which was settled for $8 million from only one of the corporate defendants, W. R. Grace, in 1986. Harr described some Woburn residents as bitterly disappointed by the settlement. Beatrice, the other corporation, had won a jury verdict that it was not liable to the plaintiffs.
Professor Robert Percival at the University of Maryland School of Law held a symposium last year that included a rare appearance by Anne Anderson, the Woburn resident who lost a son to leukemia and was described by Harr as the driving force behind the lawsuit. At the meeting, Anderson described Schlichtmann as "slick." On a videotape that is now used in law school classes, she added: "I think his motivation was not concerned so much with us as with himself."
Schlichtmann, who has spoken at more than two dozen law schools, said in an interview that he has grown used to the sometimes harsh assessment of his actions.
But he said he has accepted some of the criticism, saying the case had changed his life and his approach to the law. His message to law students, he said, is that the lessons of the Woburn case should be used to reform the legal system.
Students, Schlichtmann said, are fascinated by the way the Woburn litigation became a bruising legal battle. But Schlichtmann, now 47, said he tells law students that such legal conflagrations waste time and people.
"Woburn was a war, a nine-year war," he said, "and all wars, no matter how necessary, are evil."
Pub Date: 12/26/98