Will The Real Harvard Law Please Stand Up?

You guys, I am so pumped about this post. SO pumped. Today I’m going to answer the nation’s #1 question (no, not if bleach can cure COVID-19. Or if Kim Jung Un is really dead. Those are in-the-moment questions, while THIS question has existed since 2004). That’s right – for nearly two decades, America has been wondering…

How accurate is Legally Blonde really? Is that actually what Harvard Law School is like?

Well, never fear because I am HERE TO ANSWER! As a certified survivor of the Harvard 1L experience, I plan to give my professional opinion (via the ultra-official, Real/Not Real test) on the movie’s most famous scenes. Of course, I showed up 16 years later than Elle Woods, but some things just never change. And no, this post will not discuss the Zoom School of Law. Sorry in advance.

SHOWING UP FOR 1L YEAR (So-So)

In Legally Blonde, Elle rolls right up to campus with all her luggage, pink accessories, and Bruiser. She classically stands out from her peers by asking for a social calendar and revealing that she and her chihuahua are both Gemini vegetarians. The intro scenes are incredible, but only partly realistic.

First of all, the scene pictured above is from UCLA, not Harvard (booooooo). In fact, Cambridge (Massachusetts – where Harvard is) only appears in a few aerial shots! The “on campus” scenes are a mix of UCLA, USC, and Rose City High School, so the campus shown in Legally Blonde is definitely not real. But moving right along…

The social calendar? Kind of real – you do get a schedule of events for Orientation Week, but it’s not full of the mixers Elle was looking for. Instead, the calendar is filled with presentations about HLS resources, student groups, advice from 2Ls and 3Ls, and faculty intros. Orientation is real, but didn’t happen as depicted in the movie (small groups on the lawn, everyone giving full introductions, etc). Rather, we went through Orientation with our entire 1L section of eighty people, or as an entire class for certain presentations.

But two things are undeniably real about Legally Blonde‘s depiction of Orientation. First, Elle’s classmates reveal that they have PhDs, have recently done charity work in Somalia, organized marches, and graduated first in their class from Ivy Leagues. This stuff is legit! My class includes five Rhodes Scholars, one Survivor contestant, at least one Olympic athlete, top chefs, a Ted Talk-er, and representation from 185 undergraduate institutions. I’m constantly blown away by how amazing my classmates are. Second, I wore a pink blazer on the first day of orientation (channeling my icon, obviously) and I’m happy to report that it still stood out!

1L CLASSES (So-So)

I’ll starting with Elle’s first law school class, where Professor Stromwell kicks her out for not reading (you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwY85_MC_AY&t=107s)

Let’s break this down:

  1. A 48-pg reading for one class? REAL. I’d say assignments usually run between 20-30 pages, but we’ve absolutely had 50+ happen.
  2. Come to class “well-versed” in Subject Matter Jurisdiction? NOT REAL. SMJ is a really tough topic, there’s no way a 1L could master it from a single night of reading.
  3. Cold-calling Elle to talk about Gordon v. Steele? REAL. And that’s an actual case!
  4. Students “not knowing” about an assignment? NOT REAL. But people would occasionally come to class, get called on, and then admit to not reading. Key word, “occasionally.”
  5. Getting asked to leave class for not reading? NOT REAL. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this happening. You’d likely get chastised a bit, and you WILL get called again the next day.

The movie then shows a second class, with Professor Callahan questioning Warner and Elle jumping in to “win her case” (see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xs3_hNYAVRw&list=PLpxRzCf0gOr5o7q93GzSbshOZuaAKe2Jt&index=6&t=1s) Okay…

  1. Prof Callahan’s question, Warner’s response, and then another question fired back at Warner? REAL. This is a prime example of the Socratic Method in action!
  2. Elle raising her hand and rebutting Warner? ALSO REAL. Here, she’s playing the classic role of “Devil’s Advocate.” Class just wouldn’t be the same without them…
  3. Prof Callahan pronouncing that Elle won her case? NOT REAL. The whole point of law school is to encourage all sides of an argument to be heard. Also…how the heck did she “win” that case?

I will say, the classrooms from these scenes look pretty real. The Harvard 1L rooms are larger and in a distinct horse shoe shape, but they’re also set up in ascending tiers. And the blackboards in every room are super accurate – that’s a signature feature of HLS! However, the prevalence of computers struck me as odd. I was only allowed to use a laptop in two of my nine first-year courses, and I doubt they were more accepting of technology in 2004.

Related to the classroom scenes, there’s the classic library scene where Elle is rejected from Vivian and Warner’s study group (EVEN THOUGH she brought muffins like a real team player: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70sliBu8sE4)

Study groups and assigning outlines are real. An “outline” is a giant compilation of all the doctrines, cases and notes from the semester, and it’s used to tie the class together when prepping for exams. A “study group” is an informal group of students who gather to discuss outlines, take practice tests, and review prior to finals.

While all of that is accurate, Vivian’s rejection of Elle is not real; her protest that “outlines were already assigned” is a weak excuse, and I can’t see anyone being so outright nasty to a fellow classmate. As I’ve said in previous posts, HLS is much more collaborative than I expected (as shown later in Legally Blonde). Also, the outfits? Not real – in fact, I’ll elevate that to no chance. Law students are strictly in jeans and/or sweats to study. But the muffins are real – the key to successful studying is, and always will be, snacks!!

The ONE bone I have to pick with these school scenes is that the movie glossed over first semester exams! The whole point of outlining is to study for The Final, which is the most stressful part of the 1L experience.

Replace “men” with “exams” and you’ve nailed the fall 1L experience.

INTERNSHIPS (Real)

Opportunities at HLS, competitive? Real. In the movie, Elle applies for (and gets!) an internship with one of her professors. First of all, this particular opportunity is not real – as discussed a little later, 1Ls generally don’t have enough knowledge to take on real cases (especially not halfway through their first semester). However, certain student organizations do allow 1Ls to get hands-on experience, and some professors will take on 1Ls as research assistants. Other opportunities – like the Harvard Law Review, chance to be in certain clinics and on student government, etc – require a full application, interview, and sometimes a try-out before your 2L year.

All that aside, I HIGHLY doubt anyone has ever submitted a scented pink application!

OUTSIDE HLS (Real)

First, the incredible Neptune’s Beauty Nook, where Elle befriends Paulette and routinely gets her nails done, is not real. (A tragedy – if I ever have a ton of money to start a business, I’m opening a Neptune’s Beauty Nook in Cambridge). However, self-care IS a huge part of getting through 1L! Luckily, I have my own Paulette in the form of an incredible girl that I see routinely for dermaplaning.

Second, Legally Blonde shows a couple scenes of Elle missing wedding dress shopping with her friends, leaving late from the library, and sitting in her dorm room with books and pages spread everywhere. That depiction is very real; as a 1L, your life is dedicated to getting through each week. Obviously, you’re still human – you have to take time for yourself and fun, non-school activities. But travel and fun activities are definitely limited during the first year of law school.

Finally, we can’t ignore the infamous Halloween party!! First of all, HLS parties are real (check out my own section’s 2019 bash here: https://rileyv.com/index.php/2019/11/04/a-walking-felony-harvard-law-halloween/). But unlike Legally Blonde, ours was absolutely a costume party. Also, NO ONE dresses professionally for a section party – we save the suits and drab colors for firm cocktail hours.

IN THE COURTROOM (Not real!)

Okay wait – I would be remiss if i didn’t discuss the infamous courtroom scene from Legally Blonde. It’s a little long but a MUST watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvrHS7KdZ64.

For a final breakdown:

First of all, a 1L representing a client in a criminal trial is not real. The rule that Elle uses to justify her role is real, but it only applies to students in their final year of law school. As a 1L, the most you’re doing for a real lawyer is research and drafting memos. Second, disrupting a courtroom á la Elle’s sorority sisters? Not real. A real judge would have kicked them out so fast….

Third, if your client has an alibi, YOU USE THAT ALIBI. This was definitely not real (sorry sisterhood). Fourth, huge reveals in court – like the pool boy’s sexuality or Chutney’s freaking confession – are not real. I’m not exaggerating, they literally never happen. And finally, I’m NOT saying this isn’t real, but…Elle had a lot of courage rolling up to her first day in a pink outfit!

OVERALL (fairly accurate!)

After going through it myself – overall impression of Legally Blonde? Not too shabby! I’d say the class/school scenes are pretty accurate, as well as Elle’s transition from totally uncomfortable to realizing that she deserves to be at Harvard Law. Every new law student goes through an “imposter” phase (I certainly did!) and Elle accurately represents that aspect.

Of course, the courtroom scene is completely unrealistic and I was sad to learn that the movie was filmed in California! But that doesn’t diminish my admiration for the ole Bend ‘n Snap, or the fashion major who inspired so many young women to attend law school. Xoxo Elle – we will always love you & your hair care knowledge!

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