Announcing the UNC School of Law 1L Book Club

  • E-mail E-mail
  • Google+
  • Reddit Reddit
A Civil Action

Stories are an important way to understand the world around us. This summer, for the first time, UNC School of Law is hosting a virtual book club as a gateway for entering Carolina Law students. We invite you to begin “reading the law” by turning to a riveting story. This is not an assignment (no exams, no grades!). Instead, we hope to open up a meaningful conversation with you, our entering 1Ls, to be joined by our faculty, a few of whom will write weekly blog posts about the book we’ve chosen that may dovetail with their legal interests and expertise.

For our inaugural book, we invite each of you to embrace a real-life legal thriller, A Civil Action, written by Jonathan Harr. It’s a story about childhood leukemia and the increasing suspicion, by the children’s troubled and grieving parents, that possible chemical contamination of a local stream may have led to their children’s illnesses and death. They contact a flamboyant plaintiff’s injury lawyer, who interviews scores of witnesses and buries himself in facts and legal theories about pollution, water tables, the medical impact of certain chemicals on childhood illness, and the intricacies of legal responsibility. Two large national corporations operating in the suburban Boston town where the illnesses arose are eventually sued. They in turn hire outstanding Boston law firms to investigate and defend their positions. The case moves into federal court during the 1980s. You’ll read how these real life lawyers struggle with the uncertain facts, a cast of reliable and less credible witnesses, the conflicting scientific evidence, and the complexities of the American legal system.

There’s much to learn and ponder. The book provides an unsparing look at the strengths and weaknesses of our legal system. It shows you something of the reality of being a plaintiff’s lawyer: clients’ burdens to shoulder, uncertainties to evaluate, adversaries and judges to contend with, finances to juggle. It shows equally the challenges of representing corporate clients whose ostensibly "deep pockets" draw legal claims from unhappy parties, ready to look to them for payment. A Civil Action does its work admirably, avoiding the temptation to lapse into a simple story of good vs. evil. All the major legal characters, including the trial judge, are vividly three-dimensional, both talented and flawed, dedicated and self-interested at the same time. The book amply deserves the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction it won in 1995. It was no surprise when Hollywood turned the story into a film by the same name in 1998.

We will explore the book in several stages. We invite you to begin by reading the first three chapters of the book, “Boston: July 1986,” “Woburn, Summer, 1986,” and “The Lawyer” during the week of July 3-10, posting your comments and observations throughout. I’ll then be commenting myself on some themes in those chapters, especially the nature of our adversary system, the very different styles in which someone can practice law in our legal system, and the implications of our "contingent fee" system for financing of personal injury litigation (where the plaintiff’s lawyer is paid only if his or her case succeeds) for the pursuit of justice. We’ll field your comments, and I’ll write a blog post, addressing some of those comments and offering my own thoughts July 10. Thereafter, you will have another week to read the second group of chapters, “Rule 11,” “Orphans & Dogs,” and “Discovery,” on which we’ll invite your additional comments. Another member of our faculty will then respond to your comments and write her own post with comments. And so on throughout the summer.

We want this to be a conversation, so please weigh in on the issues I outlined, or any initial insights or feedback you may have on what you are reading. For that matter, you could even just watch the movie and comment on John Travolta’s acting – just join the conversation. We invite you to join the book club community by posting comments to this and future blog posts or through Twitter (#UNCLawBookClub) or Facebook.

Please continue to check the blog for updates. In the meantime, the Kathrine R. Everett Law Library has put together a helpful Reading Guide to assist you in your efforts.

Happy Reading!

Posted by John Charles Boger (Jack) on Wed. July 3, 2013 10:00 AM
Categories: Book Club


Suspending judgment
I read this book a couple years ago, and between then and now I've read several books about statistics and pattern-seeking that have caused me to be more aware of how I draw conclusions. I remember being so certain that the plaintiffs were being poisoned the first time I read the book. This time, I'm having the same feelings when reading about the leukemia clusters, but I also am much more skeptical and am trying to check those emotions a bit. It's such a sad story, and I want someone to be at fault. I also don't want to be a 'Texas sharpshooter'.
Posted by Adam Maas on Wed. July 10, 2013 2:15 AM
RE: Suspending judgment
Dear Adam, Agreed. What makes the book so powerful, in my view, is its capacity to draw the reader into the anguish of the parents and children’s illness and grief, and to participate sympathetically in the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ search for responsibility, while still leaving the scientific and legal issues appropriately problematic. Deciding where and when to allocate responsibility for injury and loss when there has clearly been negligence or recklessness at some point (the careless dumping and discharge of chemicals into the soil) but where the relationship between those actions and the plaintiffs’ subsequent injury is not crystal clear is one of the perennial challenges of tort law. -Jack Boger
Posted by Allison L. Reid on Wed. July 10, 2013 9:10 AM
Money and Justice
It's been a little while since I read this book the first time, which makes it more exciting I suppose. I forgot about all the money he spends on preparing the case. It seems strange that justice would involve such an enormous gamble. Schlichtmann seems to assume he can't lose (which I think is a big mistake), and if he's wrong, he is going to be in big financial trouble. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs themselves are not risking anything. Then again, if the pay model changes from contingency to hourly compensation, then poorer people wouldn't be able to press their claims no matter how legitimate. What's the solution :)?
Posted by Adam Maas on Tue. July 16, 2013 1:44 AM

Comments for this post are now closed.

UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106

If you are seeing this, you are either using a non-graphical browser or Netscape 4.x (4.7, 4.8, etc.) and this page appears very plain. If you are using a 4.x version of Netscape, this site is fully functional but lacks styles and optimizations available in other browsers. For full functionality, please upgrade your browser to the latest version of Internet Explorer or Firefox.