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Ordinary People

Robert Byrnes and Jaime Marquart

If you think every Harvard Law School student is, by definition, a shining star, the first line sticks with you like a chicken bone in your throat.

"Dumb people do go to Harvard Law School" is the opening salvo of Brush with the Law: The True Story of Law School Today at Harvard and Stanford (Renaissance Books, 2002). The book is the anti-One L, according to its authors, Robert Byrnes, Stanford Law '98, and Jaime Marquart, HLS '98. It is, they say, a critique of people who rely on the reputation of the elite schools they attended and not their own merit.

"When One L came out, it was marketed as this very controversial work about how awful Harvard can be, but really all it said was the value of the degree was even higher than you thought because this place is a military for the mind, and I didn't find it to be that way at all," said Marquart. "I thought it was a little unfair that people were getting by with what I like to call intelligence proxy, basically using their degree at Harvard as shorthand for being intelligent or good at what you do."

"I don't have any qualm with the real geniuses who go through there, but most of us aren't those people," said Byrnes. "The truth is those schools are populated by a lot of ordinary people, and we were just two of those ordinary people."

In alternating chapters, the book chronologically details the authors' experiences at their schools, sprinkled with sex, drugs, gambling, and the occasional class. That didn't stop them from getting decent grades and their degrees. But their lust for adventure made them freaks in the eyes of some students who hid behind conformity and elitism, according to the authors.

"When I see people who are pathetically deceiving themselves, pathetically fearing things that they know they shouldn't fear, . . . and yet totally succumbing to it at every level, I call that unenlightened. I call that stupid," said Marquart. "When I see people behave toward one another in such unkind ways when they know it's not even in their own self-interest to do so, I call that stupid."

Speaking from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges in Los Angeles, where they are both associates, Byrnes and Marquart say they don't regret going to law school and are better people for it. They like their jobs, they say, and know that their degrees led them to where they are today. If people hold the book against them, they frankly don't care. That's the price of telling the truth, they say.

The authors have received their share of fan mail and hate mail. One graduate of Yale Law warned them that their book would devalue their degrees. Unwittingly, he may have hit upon the point of the book.

"There are a lot of people who didn't go to Harvard or Yale or Stanford Law Schools who are made to feel permanently inferior when in fact their day-to-day work is every bit as good as the people who went to those schools," said Byrnes. "The truth is that it's not a job that involves enormous, powerful intelligence on a daily basis, although people who go to those schools would like you to believe that it does require that. If the book has the effect of shaking up the hierarchy and really freeing up the people who go to the other 170 or so law schools, so much the better."

--L.R.

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