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THE FACULTY CLUB'S low ceilings and rounded contours seem to accentuate Jan Schlichtmann's storklike frame and hawkish profile. He has arrived a little early for lunch with legal studies professor Janet Rifkin, and the two are discussing water with the waitress. Before he agrees to drink a glass of the local water, Schlichtmann wants to be sure he knows where it comes from, what has been added to it. Dissatisfied by what he learns about the Atkins Reservoir, he inquires about bottled water. "Perrier is all we have," says the waitress. "I don't drink it," says Schlichtmann, and orders bottled fruit juice. He goes on to recommend to Rifkin a water filtration system that he uses in his home in Beverly.
Water and other potential sources of environmental pollution have become a passion with Schlichtmann. That and the truth, he says. It used to be about money and things fancy fast cars and expensive suits. Now it's about truth. The sixteen suits hanging in his closet rarely get worn. "They're suits of armor," says the former personal injury lawyer. "And I don't want to be on that battlefield anymore."
Jan Schlichtmann is not easy with small talk. He seems most at home on a platform, a preacher in front of a congregation that needs converting. He has seen the truth, he says, and it has made him free to redirect his life. His journey through the fires of the Woburn case has been as much spiritual as professional.
The Woburn case is the centerpiece of Jonathan Harr's bestselling book, A Civil Action , and the much-hyped movie of the same name starring John Travolta in the role of Schlichtmann. It's true that the blunt-bodied Travolta has none of Schlichtmann's physical angularity, but he certainly projects his edginess, his high-frequency presence. Travolta even manages at times to appear somewhat hawklike.
In 1982 in Woburn, Massachusetts, a group of families sought out Schlichtmann's law firm to help them seek damages against several corporations, including W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods. These corporations, they believed, were responsible for contaminating the community's drinking water. Schlichtmann had a good track record as a personal injury lawyer, and all of the families had members who had contracted leukemia or other forms of cancer. Several children had died.
The case was fought for eight years, with Schlicht-mann falling prey both to his own blunders and the deep-pocketed machinations of the corpora-tion's lawyers. He first rejected a pre-trial settlement of $8 million from W.R. Grace, then accepted it after a trial at which the finding against Grace was thrown out. Each of the families got about $400,000, but no moral satisfaction, since Grace never admitted to any wrongdoing. A lengthy jury trial cleared Beatrice. By the time Schlichtmann paid off the costs of his technical experts, nothing was left. Schlichtmann's firm was brought to bankruptcy, and the lawyer himself to the brink of personal catastrophe, as he faced up to what he refers to as "the evil monster, the pathology of law."
BEFORE getting his law degree at Cornell, Jan Schlichtmann graduated from UMass in 1979, completing his career as a BDIC (Bachelor's Degree in Individual Concentration) major. Tom Merrigan, now first justice of the Orange District Court, was briefly Schlichtmann's freshman roommate in a crowded temporary triple in Southwest. "He was clearly a passionate guy," says Merrigan. "He took everything with a great degree of seriousness although he also had a good sense of humor." Merrigan enjoyed Schlichtmann, but the connection didn't last long: They lost track of each other when their room was "de-tripled." But Merrigan was not at all surprised to hear that Schlichtmann had been involved in the Woburn case. "The Jan I knew was very cause-oriented, very committed and fervent," says Merrigan.
Legal studies professor John Bonsignore encountered Schlichtmann as a sophomore. "He stood out dramatically," says Bonsignore. "He was such a promising student. He had this avid intellectual curiosity. You could throw him almost any kind of bait and he'd tackle it." Bonsignore invited him to be an informal teaching assistant in his Introduction to Law class to "catalyze discussions, pick things up when they were sagging."
Under the auspices of BDIC Schlichtmann was able to take a wide array of courses anthropology, computer science, philosophy of science. Says Bonsignore, "He seemed to be probing the natures of various disciplines, trying to find out what made the world go." In some ways, Bonsignore sees the undergraduate Schlichtmann as already preparing himself for the Woburn case, already thinking beyond the limits of fields. After he read Harr's 1995 book, Bonsignore renewed his acquaintance with the embattled lawyer, inviting him back to campus several times.
IN RIFKIN'S CLASS, Introduction to Legal Studies, for which A Civil Action is assigned reading, Schlichtmann addresses 160 students from the bottom of the sharply raked auditorium in Hasbrouck 124. He is here as part of a three-day November visit to campus, lecturing and meeting with students as the fall's Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar-in-Residence. In the lecture hall he summons up his best preacherly mode, striding about the stage, making dramatic use of his hands, his powerful voice, his expressive dark eyebrows. In the legal system as it is set up now, he says, there are winners and losers, and it doesn't matter what the truth is. In the legal system, the truth is, he says, "a commodity, bought and sold." He quotes Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall in the movie), the lawyer for Beatrice Foods, one of the companies accused of polluting the water. "Truth," said Facher, "is at the bottom of a bottomless pit." But, says Schlichtmann from the stage, eyes flashing, asking and answering his own questions: "Who dug the pit? Why? What's the pit made of? Lies!!"
Then he turns directly to the class: "You want to be a lawyer?" he asks with heavy irony, once again answering his own rhetorical question. "Why don't you do something socially useful instead? Become a rock star. Start up your own software company." Schlichtmann himself has continued to practice law, specializing in cases involving environmental contamination, including one in Tom's River, New Jersey, and one in Pittsfield. But he says he is working in a different mode now. "I try to solve my clients' problems. I try to work in partnership, use mediation when possible. I try to help them get from that dark, dangerous place to a safe one."
Afterwards, Rifkin assesses the outcome of Schlichtmann's visit. "It was exciting for the students to see in person someone they'd gotten to know so well through the book, someone whose story they'd lived with for a couple of weeks," she says. Mostly they appreciated his charisma, and a number of them were moved by his survival, his transformation. A few, though, felt frustrated by his unwillingness to claim responsibility for the families.
One of these was Seth Bostock, who graduated in December. After reading A Civil Action and before seeing Schlichtmann, Bostock thought the lawyer had taken the case purely for the money. As he heard him talk, he began to waver, but by the time the talk was over, he'd returned to his original opinion. Bostock thought about becoming an attorney himself when he was younger, he says, but after reading and listening to Schlichtmann and other lawyers, he's decided he'll pass. In our legal system, he feels, "It's more about how a case is presented than who did what. It's one big play with actors."
Bostock's classmate Frank Smith had a different reaction. A journalism and legal studies major, Smith had found the Harr book "really powerful, disconcerting, a story where the good guy loses." He found Schlichtmann in person extremely impressive: "I thought he was brutally honest. He's no longer greedy for money, not so worried about material things. Though he's still a pretty self-absorbed person."
Using mediation as an alternative to litigation, Smith thinks, is "a great idea." But it won't always work, he says, because it assumes that people are willing to admit they're wrong. Smith's eye remains on a more traditional form of legal work. He hopes to be an attorney, perhaps a state prosecutor.
OTHER SCHOOLS, and especially law schools, have also discovered the usefulness of Harr's book on Schlichtmann and the Woburn case. According to The New York Times, A Civil Action is now required reading for courses in at least fifty law schools, including the heavy hitters of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Georgetown. Some see the use of the book as part of an attempt to reform the teaching of law, from the traditional "case method" dramatized in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase.
Rifkin, for her part, has found the book to be an extremely effective teaching tool. "It's a wonderful story," she says, "painful and powerful. It presents the complexity of the system, the process. It shows the stratification of the profession by class, power and money. It's an extremely useful way to demonstrate the complexity of personal injury law."
JANET RIFKIN speaks with characteristic intensity and considerable pride about UMass legal studies, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. "John Bonsignore is the father of the program, of the department," she says. "He was the first to propose that law is too important to be left to lawyers." When the first edition of the department's basic text, Before the Law: An Introduction to the Legal Process, came out in 1975, Bonsignore's was the only name on it. The current edition of that book has the names of six members of the department: Bonsi-gnore, Ethan Katsh, Peter d'Errico, Ronald Pipkin, Stephen Arons, and Janet Rifkin.
The book the farthest thing imaginable from an arid compendium of case law is a fascinating compilation of court opinions, sociology, history, literature, psychology, and anthropology. Opening with a Kafka parable about a man waiting fruitlessly to be admitted to "the Law," the volume covers a vast stretch of territory, from de Tocqueville's thoughts on trial by jury in nineteenth century America to a section called "Cyberspace and the Future of Law" in the latest edition. (The department itself is on top of this trend, sponsoring the Online Ombuds Office, a project aimed at using the online network to resolve disputes.)
Legal studies was introduced at UMass in 1974, the year Rifkin was hired. From the outset the program adopted a critical stance, asking the question: How can the law serve the public interest rather than replicate destructive social patterns? There was a strong sense among the founding faculty of the department, says Rifkin, that the adversary process was deeply flawed.
By 1979, Rifkin and a few others began to be interested in the process of mediation: "We were looking for alternative methods of dispute resolution. It was the beginning of a national movement." She and d'Errico started the University Mediation Project, the first such project in the country, that year, and Rifkin especially became deeply involved in the national mediation movement. The department came to house the National Association for Mediation in Education, the site of many conferences and much writing.
As she sees it, Jan Schlichtmann has embraced a powerful trend. -MP