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Screening Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Film, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Teaching, Writing on June 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Allen Mendenhall

We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.  We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.

 —Robert McKee, from Story

Law school is, in a way, about performing.  From the minute you walk into the building as a 1L, you search for and construct a new identity—one that conforms to your assumptions of what a lawyer is and does.

The first time a professor called on me—Mr. Mendenhall, can you tell us how the judge in this case distinguishes restitutionary from reliance damages?—I panicked.  I knew the answer.  More or less.  But I had no chance to rehearse.  Here I was, before a large audience, a packed house, all alone, all eyes on me.

“Um, yes,” I stammered, apparently suffering from stage fright.

I don’t remember how I answered—not precisely—but I remember taking a deep breath, feigning confidence, and pretending to know what the professor expected me to know.  I must’ve sounded silly talking about things I hardly understood; but I must’ve performed satisfactorily because the professor let me alone and interrogated another student.

My first audition. 

Law school may be an unsuspecting place to learn drama, something it has no shortage of, incidentally.  If Jaques was right and “all the world’s a stage,” all the men and women “merely players,” then acting is everywhere, all the time, not just in law school.  Yet law school lends itself to performance in unique and telling ways.  The courtroom, with its to-do, pomp, and ceremony, is prime theater.  And law school is, for litigators at least, like a series of rehearsals before the “real” thing.

In an environment with so much acting, law students might find it advantageous, even fitting, to arrive in a class called Lawyers & Film; they might find that film teaches about inner conflicts and personal callings, or that it helps them to understand the cultural significance of the legal community, of which they’re nearly a part.

Maybe they’ll discover that their viewings of To Kill A Mockingbird, The Verdict, The Music Box, or The Sweet Hereafter teach them something about the human condition.  Or maybe they will recognize—in Atticus Finch, say—the reasons they subjected themselves to the rigors of law school to begin with.

One of my most memorable classes in law school, probably the most memorable, was “Lawyers & Film,” which I took with Professor Jim Elkins.

I used the class as an occasion to write a “script,” or story, of the semester—a personal narrative that employed film literacy to come to terms with my “self” and my legal education.  The script ended up reading like a failed justification for law school curricula to include courses on film.  But the process of writing it was edifying, if ultimately disappointing, because I never could argue convincingly for the value of film literacy in law school.

I still remember the first day of that class.  Elkins talked about growing up in Kentucky and mentioned that one of his earliest memories was of the drive-in movies.  It was there that he watched cowboys riding off into wild prairie sunsets and realized that he’d ride out of western Kentucky, never to come back.

“I want you to think about the chance that you’re drawn and I’m drawn to these films because they present us with a life and world that is not our own and yet our own,” Elkins said.  “Our lives are made of memories, and films become part of memory, and I will have failed as a teacher if these films don’t become part of your memory.”

That message didn’t teach me about the practical applications of law or prepare me for the bar exam, but I remember it.  Vividly.  There’s something to be said for that.

Isn’t there?

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