Expecting only the basic pressures of attending Harvard Law School, a serious, hard-working student named James T. Hart (Timothy Bottoms), a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, finds himself the fearful adversary of the school's most imperious, sarcastic contracts professor, Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. (John Houseman). Their relationship grows even more complex when the young man discovers that the woman he is dating is the professor's daughter (Lindsay Wagner). Edward Herrmann and James Naughton co-star as other law students. The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of the novel, but it adds to revelations not in the book: Hart's first name and middle initial (James T.), and the final grade that Hart got in Contract Law: an A (in both the novel and the film, Hart makes a paper airplane out of his final report card, and sends it sailing into the Atlantic Ocean without looking at it; in the film, a scene shows Kingsfield grading Hart's paper and awarding him an A).
Kingsfield's words of advice to his class: "You teach yourselves the law; I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush;you leave thinking like a lawyer." (The television series kept this basic admonition, but changed it slightly by adding the qualification, "and if you survive" to the promise that the students would "leave thinking like a lawyer".