Third-Year Papers Set the Stage
By Seth Stern '01
A murder case unravels when the only witness rescinds his identification of the defendant and then winds up shot dead. The prosecutor tries forcing a mistrial to get a second chance at a conviction, outraging the defense attorney.
The scene makes for good drama, as it should: It’s an episode of the television series The Practice, broadcast on ABC in March and written by Peter Blake ’95. That script began as his third-year paper at Harvard Law and later helped land Blake a full-time job as a television writer.
Increasingly, third-year papers are getting published instead of just gathering dust after graduation, according to Howell Jackson ’82, associate dean for research. Writing third-year papers “gives [students] the opportunity to work and appear as independent scholars and oftentimes the work is quite valuable.”
Students who once found one of Harvard Law’s 11 student journals the most likely place to publish their work are discovering other audiences in law journals across the country and even more untraditional venues.
In the last decade, third-year papers have become much-cited sources of scholarship on subjects from credit rating agencies to torts, Jackson says. And in Blake’s case, it was an entry into Hollywood.
Of course, the typical third-year paper doesn’t wind up as a television script. But in a competitive
legal academic job market, a third-year paper can also boost more traditional legal careers.
Take Doug Kysar ’98, who wrote his third-year paper on product liability under Professor Jon Hanson. Kysar had already developed an interest in product liability while enrolled in Hanson’s first-year Torts class. (Peter Blake also later served as one of Hanson’s teaching assistants.)
Kysar’s third-year paper focused on how behavioral law and economics plays out in tobacco products liability cases. He studied how the market would evolve to recognize individuals’ limited capacities to process information and make decisions.
That paper led to an article coauthored with Hanson in New York University Law Review as well as additional articles in the Harvard Law Review.
Kysar says the work that developed out of his third-year paper helped land him his current job as a junior law professor at Cornell Law School. “Without Jon Hanson, I wouldn’t have a job,” says Kysar. “By giving me the opportunity to write significantly as a law student, he gave me a huge leg up in an extremely competitive legal academic market.”
Blake too credits a faculty member’s approval of his third-year paper topic for jump-starting his career. Professor James Vorenberg ’51, who often referred to the television show Law & Order while teaching Blake’s first-year criminal law class, OK’d a third-year paper designed as a script for the crime show.
Blake focused on what he calls an “arcane point of prosecutorial misconduct.” A prosecutor engineers a mistrial when a trial is going badly and tries to find a way around double jeopardy’s preclusion against charging the defendant again.
Blake submitted the script, designed as a sample or “spec script” as it’s called in the television industry, to Vorenberg along with a more detailed 20-page memo on the legal issues raised. Vorenberg gave Blake an A- but advised the script could probably use a little more action.
Five years later, after working as a management consultant and assistant to a Hollywood studio executive, Blake made minor revisions to his third-year paper and submitted it to an agent.
He soon got a job at The Practice, a drama about a small Boston law firm created by David E. Kelly, whose other shows include Ally McBeal and Boston Public. This season, Blake wrote an episode based on his paper titled “Manifest Necessity.” It was the first episode in which he got the sole writer’s credit.
In the episode, the prosecutor gets a detective to blurt out an inadmissible detail at trial after he finds his case vanish along with his witnesses. The show’s star, Bobby Donnell, played by Dylan McDermott, is outraged and suggests the prosecutor is trying to goad him into asking for a mistrial.
Blake’s legal creativity is evident in the episode’s other plot line: A sick petty criminal tries to commit a federal offense in order to get free health care in prison. Blake also throws in a reference to his former professor. A secretary in the fictional law office reports the Vorenbergs are waiting outside. Blake says he likes to use friends’ names but especially wanted to pay tribute to Vorenberg, who died in 2000.
“I owe Jim a lot,” say Blake. “If he didn’t let me write this thing, I’d probably be a miserable management consultant.”