Some 125 students are in their first week at John Marshall Law School, which starts a brand-new class of day and evening students midyear. This 90-year-old institution, downtown on Plymouth Court next door to the new Chicago Bar Association, is known for turning out the less intellectual, scrappy new lawyers. It’s a warm and stuffy kind of place–part tacky modern and part Gothic Ivy League–currently educating 1,200 mostly working-class students. Faculty members include the Honorable George Leighton and former U.S. attorney Dan Webb, present lawyer to indicted alderman Fred Roti.

Outside, in Federal Plaza, there is a huge demonstration denouncing the war; inside, war is being declared. The new class wants to join a fraternity–they want to become lawyers–and they have to go through hazing. For at least three years.

In the lobbies and lounges and hallways, among the entering students who are women the main topic of conversation is often how many children they have; the women with the most or the youngest draw the most attention.

The second most common topic of conversation among these students is the saintliness or helplessness of respective husbands, which elicits envy or sympathy from the others. The divorced ones leave their fellow students sighing about how they’ll manage the long hours of study unaided by a spouse. “See this bag?” says one. “I used it all through college. And then I used it to travel all through Europe. And then I used it as a diaper bag. And now I’m using it for this.” (It was carrying 22 pounds of law texts.)

After that, the most popular topic of conversation among the women is how many years they’ve been out of an institution of higher learning. The number of wrinkles around the eyes invariably matches the number of years out.

The main topics discussed among the incoming boys–who look like combination apprentice plasterers, college kids home for Christmas, and marines in Iraq–are what city they’re from and/or what part of Chicago their apartment is in. By the end of their first week together, large groups of them go out for beer on Friday night. (And then again on Monday night.)

During orientation week, before school began, the students were taught how to use the school’s library and PCs (a nice side benefit of the $12,000-per-year tuition). And they were invited to a four-and-a-half-hour moot trial in a Civic Center courtroom put on by the upperclassmen–some demonstrating their new lawyering abilities, and others, who were chosen to play the part of the witnesses in a will dispute between a half brother and sister, demonstrating their acting abilities.

Also during orientation week an assistant dean told the incoming class that after they graduate, they’ll find it hard to believe the awesome power they’ll have, as officers of the court, to ruin people’s lives with bad advice. (He did not guarantee that the school would be dispensing bad advice, but warned that if the students didn’t study and learn properly, this could be the result.) A professor told them that a lawyer is part priest, part scholar, and part prizefighter. But don’t get carried away with the prizefighting part, he said, because what goes around comes around.

Another assistant dean said that studying should take nine hours a day, in addition to the three hours spent in class, and that only one night a week should be devoted to the pursuit of happiness. Like parties and families and the symphony. He also said that if friends and family had trouble with law school demands, he would be glad to personally counsel anybody’s spouse, fiance, etc. He recalled one husband and wife whose marriage was coming apart because of the wife’s long hours of study and class preparation. “I advised them to solve their problems by getting a divorce. Which they did. But they thanked me,” he said. “It was the right thing–for them.”

As the first week begins, and the assignments and rules for classroom decorum are made clear, students complain that being in law school is like standing in a large hole (kind of like a big ditch in which construction workers might sink a huge caisson–or a grave). And shovel after shovelful of dirt is being thrown on them until they’re completely covered up and cut off from the world.

The first few nights of school they feel spasms in their neck and shoulder muscles in the middle of the night–it feels like flu or encephalitis coming on, they say–from the huge, heavy books they carry back and forth from home to class. “My Jane Fonda Workout With Weights is redundant in my life now,” says one woman. “But I’ll never have time for it anyway.”

Four of the classes for the full-time students–Torts, Contracts, Property, and Criminal Law–are all in the same fluorescently lit lecture hall: part Gothic, part modern, with Danish modern chairs at long tables for ten. And like grammar school, one after the other, the teachers come to them. In the fifth class, Lawyering Skills, the students are split into smaller groups and go to the teachers.

During the break between classes, a woman lifts her Torts casebook out of a giant-sized $60 canvas carrying case next to her chair, places it on the long table in front of her, and puts her Property casebook back in the bag. Then she switches notebooks and case briefs (student summaries of each case read). And the next teacher enters. One teacher wants to stand in the middle of the room, so half the class turn their chairs around 180 degrees and use the long tables of the students behind them.

It is part of the professor’s job to demonstrate an adversarial relationship to the students from the beginning. First names are never used. The rules of classroom procedure (akin to courtroom procedure) are spelled out from the start, some of them listed right on the syllabus. They are severe.

The penalty for being unprepared for Torts–unfamiliar with the cases and therefore unable to participate in the Socratic dialogue between professor and students–is to be thrown out of class. It takes a lengthy bureaucratic process to get back in. This can be avoided by letting the big, bouncy, jolly, muddy gray professor know before class that one is unprepared, so that one will not be called on and waste everyone’s time. But one can only use this privilege three times. “If you are not prepared and do not tell me so,” he says, “you are dishonest and a cheat–and there are too many dishonest and deceitful attorneys out there already. We do not need more.”

He does make one exception to the three-unprepared-classes limit. “Many of you probably have parents,” he says. “And one of them might die . . .”

Then he tells the students to fill out a “doomsday” seating chart: his way of gauging attendance for the rest of the course and of matching names with faces. The students are forever committed to sitting in the same seats they’re sitting in that first day. He wants them to fill in their last names on the chart from “my point of view,” so they have to think in terms of the class being upside down as the chart comes around. He says that if a name ends up in the wrong box, when he figures it out he’ll let everyone know. “And you will forever be known as the class dildo,” he says.

Then he says that all law professors have a touch of sadism and that his will be at its peak this semester since he’ll be dieting. Still, the big Teutonic-looking man seems like a lot of fun. When he ripped his pant leg on an exposed nail at the front of the room for the second or third day in a row, he screamed for a maintenance man to come and help. A Hispanic guy peeked in, shrugged, and went to get some tools.

In Property, the compulsively sarcastic professor has written on the syllabus: “Lack of preparation…is…an obstacle to the entire class….It is your responsibility to see to it that you have initialed the attendance sheet each day you are in class. You are advised to use your allowable absences carefully, and only for good reason.”

He says that he too allows only three unprepared classes–and these must be requested beforehand in writing. “Any student who is unprepared when called on…will lose one-half grade from his or her final exam performance.”

The first thing this professor does is take a Polaroid picture of a student in the first row. Then he deluges the class with the same questions over and over. “Did I take anything from her? Was her property taken? How do you go about finding out if this woman had anything taken from her?” he shouts. Acting agitated, he loudly scoffs at nearly everyone’s answers, which range from stilted layman’s legalese (“Was he seeking to make a profit from said picture?”) to the unintentionally ridiculous (“Did you take her property? I don’t know. Let’s see, is anything missing?”). Still, there are glimmers of legal scholarship in an infantile stage among the people whose names are called at random off the roll. His performance, however, is so distracting that no one gets the correct answer.

In Contracts, the professor seems kind and easygoing. He boasts about his class being the most important one in the curriculum. “Are you going to have a lot of friends put in jail?” he asks, referring to Criminal Law. “Are a lot of people you know going to walk outside and get knocked over?” he says, disparaging Torts. “No. The most common questions you’re going to get from your friends are going to be about contracts. With all due respect to my colleagues, you are just not going to use their classroom information that much. Ninety-five percent of the legal problems are contract problems.”

It begins to seem he’s the only regular guy here–he keeps regular brown-bag lunch hours to meet with students, and passes out a list of the questions asked on the application to the Illinois Bar (students for the next few years should be sure to keep up their credit rating, pay their parking tickets, stay out of jail, stay married, and remember every boss they ever had in their lives, for their employment histories). Then he one-ups his colleagues. “If you’re not prepared, don’t come to class,” he says. “I know, sometimes there’s reasons for being unprepared. Like if your whole family is wiped out. But don’t come if you’re not prepared. It’s that simple.”

No matter how threatening the professors seem, it does not stop a certain percentage of the students from raising their hands, dying to be called on. Even if a classmate’s just pausing to check a fact, to think, or to weigh his words, during the moment of hesitation those hands shoot up. It’s the same if it appears that, God forbid, the other student is getting the answer wrong.

Some of the cases that have to be briefed for the first week of classes are quirky and compelling. One has to do with a waitress in 1918 who bit into a piece of commercially baked cake that had a nail in it. Despite her injury, she lost the case in a New York appeals court because the suit was filed on the basis of the warranty rather than of negligence. (Renowned jurist Benjamin Cardozo happened to have sat on that court and was part of the majority that denied her damages.) Another has to do with a couple of soldiers practicing at the King’s Court in England in 1616, one of whom shot the other accidentally with a musket. Another was about a golfer who hit a hole in one several days after a charity tournament in which a car dealer had offered a brand-new car to anyone who hit a hole in one. The car dealer had forgotten to take the sign down, and so the judge ruled that the golfer who’d happened by and seen the signs and hit the hole in one got a car. Another concerned a pharmacist who wanted compensation for $10,000 worth of drugs that had already been unpackaged and so were unsalable when his business was condemned by eminent domain for a redevelopment project in Watts. The best case involved a five-year-old boy: had he committed battery when he pulled a chair out from under an arthritic old woman?

The Criminal Law professor is uncharacteristically low-key and sweet. Bland compared to the others.

The students still can’t win, however. This class will be studying heinous crimes–gruesome crimes such as kidnapping, robbery, murder, and rape. “Malum in se,” he calls them. “That means crimes that are wrong in themselves.”