THE SOCRATIC METHOD By Michael Levin Simon and Schuster. 304 pp. $17.95
There must be a lot of people out there interested in law school. A novel about a class in contracts law, "The Paper Chase," spawned a movie, a TV show and a brokerage house. ("Smith Barney. They make money the old-fashioned way. They advertise.") Scott Turow, author of the current best seller "Presumed Innocent," got his start writing "One L," a book about Harvard Law School, before moving up to sex and violence. And now comes Michael Levin with a law-school novel entitled "The Socratic Method."
This attention to legal academia is almost as stupefying as the notion of law students actually attending classes. Law school is at best a year's worth of education rolled into three; competition for grades and jobs creates anxiety but can't break the boredom. Levin, a recent graduate of Columbia Law School, has a sense of humor about the experience and a sharp eye for its absurdities. His novel is lively with the indignation of a bright young man whose time has been wasted.
Levin's protagonist, Rebecca Shepard, is an innovative professor who shares Levin's conviction that law school curricula and teaching methods must change. Rebecca seeks to become the first tenured female professor at fictional McKinley Law School. She is opposed by an old boys club of consciously stereotypic characters, including a "Paper Chase"-style contracts professor who drives three students to suicide, a professor who trades job recommendations for sex and a criminal law professor who shamelessly represents delightfully mercenary defendants on the side.
Levin's farce has an earnest tone, however, and he shares the confusions of other erstwhile law school reformers. Legal academia is torn between its trade school mission and demands from intellectuals and liberals that it be something more. Rebecca's students, who entered law school to learn skills that would give them the power to change the world, bemoan their growing desires to work for high-salaried law firms. Echoing liberal critics, they blame an education in "legal thinking" for their own waning idealism.
But the waning of idealism in some people isn't necessarily a bad thing. With its vague promises of access to power and politics, law school attracts the same kind of thinkers who might be revolutionaries in another culture -- children who believe that good grades, youthful righteousness and a speaking acquaintance with current events give them the mandate to remake the world in their own images. Levin captures this spirit in the character of Katrina Wolfish, a self-absorbed feminist who leads a student strike against "brutality and banality" in the classroom. We should be thankful Katrina doesn't have better things to do; like prisons, law schools serve the beneficial purpose of segregating some of the dangerous types while they mature.
But while Levin does not take Katrina seriously, he does appear to believe in her cause. Levin ridicules his fictional faculty as petty men who are more concerned with their own academic writing and outside consulting jobs than with teaching law. The faculty characters work as funny stereotypes, but in service of his underlying criticisms they don't ring true. Law professors are not to blame when their students eventually choose to work for money rather than charity, a popular choice with or without a legal education.
The reviewer, a Washington lawyer, is the author of "Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America."