A Brief History of NULS Student Newsletters, Part 1: Law School Life in Xerox

The Pleader was conceived last year, so the story goes, simultaneously by two second-year students who felt the need for a school newspaper. […] There is a theory that a stroke of genius, an apple on Newton’s head so to speak, occurs simultaneously to more than one individual. Such was the case with The Pleader. From that initial spark a meaningful part of life at NULS was created.” 

As if describing the origins of a sacred text, this passage from the essay “Long Live The Pleader” recounts the formation of Northwestern Law’s infamous student newsletter, The Pleader. It is featured on the front page of volume III, issue no. 5, circa 1978. This is the earliest issue in the Pritzker Legal Research Center’s archival collection, and serendipitously, it offers the contemporary reader a tidy introduction to the newsletter’s history with its trademark tongue-in-cheek irreverence. The essay concludes with a statement of the newsletter’s thesis, the anonymous author insisting that the participation of their fellow law students is crucial to The Pleader’s continued existence: 
 
“We must now work together to realize the potential for expression, communication, and positive change which The Pleader offers. As a source of information, the paper has an important purpose; as an expression of our collective experience, it has a life of its own. Can you hear the buzz?” 

With its satirical tone and its dedication to rallying students, The Pleader’s most enduring legacy can perhaps best be described as creating a buzz. Established in Fall 1977, The Pleader served as a for-students, by-students platform in which to share information on Northwestern Law’s current events. More infamously, it also gave students an opportunity to freely voice their opinions on their law school experiences with virtually no target considered off-limits. Despite its popularity, The Pleader ended after a short run in 1979, but a new student newsletter quickly filled the void it left behind: beginning in 1980, HOOPS provided a similar outlet for student voices and included many features that were indebted to those established by The PleaderHOOPS was regularly published through the 1980s and well into the 1990s, a mainstay of law student life that embraced and even invited controversy throughout its publication history. 

The Anatomy of the Student Newsletter 

For the contemporary reader, the library’s archive of The Pleader and HOOPS serves as a time capsule of student life during the 1970s-1990s. During their time, the newsletters served myriad purposes for their contemporary readers, thus capturing a broad range of student interests and needs. For example, a student might have consulted the newsletter for information on upcoming law school events, examining the calendars at the beginning of the issue or checking the regular reports from SFPIF (the Student Funded Public Interest Fellowships Program) or the Student Bar Association. Other students might have picked up a copy of The Pleader or HOOPS for its pure entertainment value, perhaps finishing a puzzle between classes or laughing with their friends about the salacious “Dear Fritz” advice column. However, most other sections offered an opinionated take on a specific facet of law school life. For example, a regular column reported on the Clinic (known as the “Clinic Weasel” in The Pleader); another discussed student commutes to and from campus (“Commutin’” in The Pleader); a later column even focused on law students’ favorite off-campus haunts (see HOOPS’s “The Bar Review”). These sections gathered pithy observations and complaints with which the reader might commiserate, offering a public record of these experiences for which there is little contemporary analogue, even online. Beyond these columns, the newsletters offered a rare creative outlet for students to reflect on law school: students channeled their frustrations and anxieties into poetry, prose, comics, or caricatures, which could often be found near the back of an issue. One such comic, printed in a 1978 issue of The Pleader, satirizes the ongoing existential crises of law students and professionals, which they depict as unchanging despite the encouragement that the seniors offer their juniors (see illustration). 

In their formal and visual qualities, almost every Xeroxed page of these newsletters bears the touch of law student attitude. Unlike many traditional student newspapers, most issues of The Pleader included handwritten section titles, letterheads, and doodles, while HOOPS often featured handmade photo collages reminiscent of DIY punk fanzines of the 1980s. These photo collages frequently featured faculty and administration portraits, their faces sometimes pasted in absurdist assemblages or drawn over with mustaches (see illustration). With these bold and jeering visuals, the strong tone of their writing, and their dedication to an unfiltered account of the law student experience, these newsletters embraced an air of rebellion and playful irreverence from cover to cover.

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Library Assistant, Pritzker Legal Research Center, Northwestern University

Posted in Archives, Law School History, Library Resources, Uncategorized
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