On the first day of class at Harvard University, first-year law student James T. Hart becomes ill after enduring a grueling interrogation in Contract Law class by Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. That evening, Hart’s dorm leader, Toombs, observes that the intimidating Kingsfield, who has taught at the school for more than forty years, is rumored to drive students mad in their quest for a perfect grade. The next day, Hart’s neighbor, Franklin Ford III, asks him to join his study group along with fellow first-year law students Thomas Craig Anderson, Willis Bell, Kevin Brooks and O’Connor. Each member of the group will provide notes on one course for the term and exchange them just before final exams. In Kingsfield’s next class, the professor explains that his teaching method consists of continually presenting questions rather than lectures. In this way, Kingsfield explains, the students will learn to think like lawyers. A few nights later, as Hart returns to the dorm, a young woman, Susan Fields, runs up to him and takes his arm, explaining that she is being followed. Hart offers to walk Susan home and soon is chattering away about law school. Confident that Susan will remember him, Hart calls on her a few days later and after a pleasant evening, she invites him to spend the night. Ecstatic, Hart responds confidently in Kingsfield’s class the next day, but receives no approval or acknowledgement from Kingsfield. As Hart begins dating Susan regularly, Anderson warns him that it is folly for a first year to engage in romantic entanglements, but Ford approves. Over the next several weeks, Hart’s studies are gradually affected by his romance and he becomes upset when he finds himself unprepared in Kingsfield’s class. Meeting Susan in a park one afternoon, a weary Hart tells her that their relationship conflicts with his studies and accuses her of not providing him proper support. Offended, Susan leaves when Hart dozes off. That night Ford tells Hart of an annual party thrown by Kingsfield at his home the day after Thanksgiving for all his law students. The following week at the party, a nervous Hart mingles with other students and receives a shock to see Susan, who Ford informs him is Kingsfield’s daughter. Stunned, Hart begins to leave and Susan follows him to ask why he has not called her. Demanding to know why she lied about her identity, Susan tells him that Fields is her married name and that she is in the process of divorcing. Overcome, Hart leaves the party, but later visits Susan’s apartment where she explains that her husband Philip was a law-school drop-out whom she left after two years. Satisfied, Hart resumes seeing Susan. Over the next few weeks, Kevin tells Hart that he feels overwhelmed by the course work, in particular, Contract Law, and Hart promises to help. One night, after Kingsfield returns early from a New York trip, he nearly catches Hart and Susan in his house. The next day in class, Hart believes that the professor has pointedly ignored him and confronts Susan, demanding to know if she has told him about their romance. Susan insists that her father makes it a rule never to get personal with students and Hart is just another anonymous student to him. Frustrated, Hart asks Susan about her divorce, but she reveals she has no intention of remarrying and suggests they stop seeing each other for a while. By mid-term, tensions have risen in Hart’s study group, as Bell has taken a dislike to O’Connor and Kevin’s insecurities cause the others to wonder if he will complete his end-of-term notes. Later, Kevin tells Hart that he has acquired a tutor for the practice exams. One afternoon in the library, Hart learns of the restricted books known as the Red Set, which contain the professors’ original study notes. A couple of nights later, Hart and Ford break into the library stacks and Hart delights in pouring over Kingsfield’s notes. Exhilarated, Hart sends Susan flowers and when she telephones to thank him, the couple agrees to meet. Hart enthusiastically relates having read her father’s notes and understanding how he thinks, but Susan advises caution, then suggests they go away the following weekend to her family home on Cape Cod where they can discuss their relationship. After the next Contract Law class, Hart lingers behind to speak with Kingsfield and is elated when the professor invites him to do a research project for him over the weekend. When Hart telephones Susan to postpone their weekend, however, she hangs up on him. Hart works nonstop through the entire weekend on the project, but Monday afternoon reports to Kingsfield that he is unable to condense his conclusions yet. Kingsfield dismisses him, stating that when he did not receive the report first thing in the morning he had a third year complete it and informs Hart it would have been a supplement in his latest legal treaty. Crestfallen, Hart meets Susan and wonders if he might flunk Contract Law. Impatiently, Susan tells him that grades are nothing but paper, then wishes he would flunk, which could be a good thing. When Hart is horrified, an exasperated Susan declares she does not want to see him again. In the study group, Bell’s continued smug arrogance drives O’Connor to quit, taking his notes with him. Later, after Hart sees Susan walking with her father, he waits for her by her apartment and is startled when she brings home a man. Confronting them, Hart is chagrined when Susan introduces her husband Philip and informs Hart that Kingsfield is handling their divorce. At the next study group meeting when Bell displays his copious term notes, which are several hundred pages, and implies he may not share them, Ford throws him out. After Kevin admits he flunked the practice exams despite the tutor, Hart offers to help him study, but Kevin is certain that he will fail the entire semester. A few days later, Hart belatedly remembers Kevin’s wife Asheley’s invitation to her husband’s birthday party, but when he hurries to the Brooks’s apartment, Asheley confesses that Kevin has tried to commit suicide. When Susan agrees to see Hart, the two go to the Cape, where Hart continues discussing Kingsfield. Susan wearily wonders how long he will accept her father’s condescending, abrasive manner. In the next class, Hart startles Kingsfield by refusing to answer a question. When the professor humiliates Hart in front of the class, Hart calls him a “son of a bitch,” which Kingsfield states is the most intelligent thing stated all day. At the final study group meeting, only Hart, Anderson and Ford exchange notes as Kevin has withdrawn from the university. Hart and Ford then rent a Boston hotel room to study for exams. After the final exam, when Hart finds himself in the elevator with Kingsfield and tells the professor how much his course has meant to him, Kingsfield does not seem to recall Hart’s name. Later, Kingsfield grades the finals and Hart earns an “A.” Some days afterward at the Cape, Hart and Susan receive the mail delivery that brings Susan’s divorce decree and Hart’s grades. Without opening the envelope, Hart folds the paper into an airplane, then standing on a large rock, throws it out to sea.