Oct. 6, 2008
UI law students learn lessons from Herman Melville and Jimmy Stewart
America's fictional landscape is filled with legendary lawyers.
There's Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Professor Charles Kingsfield, Jr. in "The Paper Chase," and Perry Mason in the eponymous TV show.
David E. Kelley and Dick Wolf have populated television courtrooms with dozens of lawyers between them in shows like "Boston Legal," "L.A. Law" and the "Law & Order" franchise. John Grisham has sold millions of books and movie tickets with his stable of young, idealistic lawyers learning that sometimes, the law can be a tough business.
Shakespeare wrote about lawyers in his plays and even "The Simpsons" has a lawyer, in Lionel Hutz.
This fall, students at the University of Iowa College of Law are examining many of those characters and the relationship between the law and the culture at large, while learning a new way to think about the law and legal issues.
In "Law and Lawyers in Literature," students examine some of the great literary works about lawyers and the legal issues lawyers confront. In "Law and Pop Culture," students see how lawyers and legal issues are portrayed in a variety of classic movies and television shows.
Mark Schantz, a law professor who teaches Law and Pop Culture, said the classes show students the importance of understanding the places where law and culture intersect.
"We know that the law affects culture, and culture affects the law," said Schantz. He points to what's known in the legal profession as the CSI Effect, named after the television crime procedural about forensic investigators who use various high tech equipment and cutting edge methods to solve crimes.
Many jurors don't realize, though, that most of those methods and equipment are not always available or applicable, Schantz said. In some cases, the episode writers overstate the ability of the methods for dramatic effect, but again, jurors don't know that. As a result, they expect to see the kind of evidence at trial that they see on movies and television shows. He said prosecutors and defense attorneys have to know this as they develop their legal strategies.
Many law schools offer similar courses, which provide a different way to study legal issues. At Iowa, the two classes are open only to a limited number of third-year law students.
"Literature gives us a much richer context in which to examine the law and lawyers, and provides an opportunity to reflect on the law in a way that students don't often have," said Steven Burton, who teaches Law and Lawyers in Literature. "It presents legal issues in a much fuller way for students than they read in a traditional casebook."
Among the movies and TV shows that Schantz's students watch are such Oscar-winning classics as "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Anatomy of a Murder," "Philadelphia" and "Kramer v. Kramer," as well as episodes of "L.A. Law" and "The Practice."
On Burton's reading list is Herman Melville's trial-at-sea drama "Billy Budd, Sailor," Harper Lee's beloved novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," Oran Pamuk's "Snow," Plato's "Gorgias," and W.H. Auden's poem, "Law Like Love."
Burton and Schantz say they select their books and movies based largely on how they present legal issues. "Kramer v. Kramer," for instance, effectively presents issues involved in family law, while "Billy Budd, Sailor," includes a trial and execution that raises deep questions about the nature of law and justice.
Burton also includes on his reading list Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day," about a butler who shows undying loyalty to his employer in 1930s England, even though the employer is a fascist and Nazi sympathizer.
Although the book is not about the law directly, Burton said it brings up issues that students will certainly confront during their legal careers. For instance, how does an attorney remain loyal to a client even if the attorney doesn't like the client, or positions the client takes? It also brings up work-life balance issues, in that the butler in the book sacrifices most elements of his life, including love, to remain true to his employer.
Schantz said movies reveal a noticeable shift in the public's view of lawyers in recent decades. For years, leading lawyer characters were typically seen as good guys, such as Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in "Mockingbird," or Jimmy Stewart's Paul Biegler in "Anatomy of a Murder."
But starting in the 1960s, leading lawyers started to become much more nuanced and flawed, such as Paul Newman's Frank Galvin in "The Verdict" or George Clooney's Michael Clayton from last year's film of the same name.
"Since the 1960s, you don't find too many heroic lawyers in film," he said. "Movies in those years became more realistic, and so did the characters, including lawyers."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.
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