READ the Best of Portfolio, featuring a selection of the best published work from Portfolio students.

KEEP UP with journalists' beats in Blogfolio, updated throughout the day.

  • Read more about Portfolio

  • See sample portfolio proposals

  • Application information

  • Video of guest speakers and Master Classes (requires RealPlayer)

    Search for talent

    Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action (1985)
    It reads like a Hollywood screenplay: a flawed, but morally redeemable protagonist fights against the nameless corporation after small-town families are wronged. In fact, the real-life Woburn case played out so much like a movie that networks fought over the rights to it, ending with a TKTK blockbuster starring John Travolta as attorney Jan Schlictman. Harr gave them plenty of fodder for dialogue with this riveting case history that reads more like a best-selling novel than a law brief.

    The case follows a central cast of characters from the small town of Woburn in Massachusetts and a struggling malpractice lawyer who dedicates his business and life to their cause. Anne Anderson, a devoted small-town housewife, lost her son to leukemia. In dealing with her grief she reached out to her neighbor, who also had a child inflicted with the same rare cancer. It turned out that several people in her neighborhood had children with leukemia and she thought that such a concentration of a non-contagious illness was peculiar. She brought her concern to Schlictman, a new but successful malpractice lawyer, after hazardous material was found in her town's well water. The book follows the evolution of the case, from Schlictman's initial abandonment of the case due to lack of funds and information to his bankrupting his company and destruction of his love life in defense of this case.

    But unlike a true Hollywood movie, this case didn't have a happy ending. The ornery Judge Skinner was reluctant to hear any of Schlictman's testimony, even on appeal when the defendants were charged with withholding important documents. One of the companies named in the lawsuit for contaminating the Woburn wells settled out of court for a fee that hardly covered Schlictman's legal costs. The other smaller tannery was basically exonerated in court after the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court denied Schlictman's appeal. The lawyer who dedicated his life and his successful practice to defending a few families who had suffered the ultimate tragedy at the hands of ecologically remiss companies filed for bankruptcy and quit law. Eventually an EPA study irrefutably connected the companies with the pollution in the wells.

    For a journalist, this sets the standard for how law should be covered with a human face, emotion and facts. The case itself didn't set a long-standing court precedent or change the way laws are created or argued. Instead Harr was able to make an important case, just by the way it was reported. Although the story is not told with the most objective tone, it still presents the facts of the case in a journalistic manner.