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Posts Tagged ‘Law students’

Adam’s Rib and the “Two-Worlds” Problem

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Film, Humanities, Information Design, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, Teaching on June 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Directed by George Cukor, the film Adam’s Rib tells the story of Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn), New York attorneys whose marriage smacks of “tough love.”  The couple square off when Adam is assigned to prosecute a woman (Judy Holliday) who has attempted to murder her philandering husband—a bumbling dweeb—in the apartment of his mistress.  Amanda, who approves of the woman’s act, which she views as resistance to patriarchal society, takes up the case as defense counsel.

Genesis tells us that God fashioned Adam from dust, Eve from Adam’s rib.  Adam’s Rib tells a different story.

If anything, Amanda, or “Eve,” is the starting-point—a source of controversy, inspiration, and curiosity.  Adam’s Rib isn’t the first production to render gender contests in comedic tones—it’s part of a tradition dating back at least to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew or Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed, and probably much further—but it is one of the more remarkable of all twentieth-century productions, especially in light of Amanda’s advocacy for a doctrine that, in American family law, came to be known as “formal equality.”

What, exactly, does Adam’s Rib offer law students?  What does it teach law students, and why should law professors bother with it?

A film that’s in no way after verisimilitude is unlikely to teach law students how to file motions, write briefs, analyze statutes, or bill clients—tasks that we assume are requisite to becoming “good” lawyers.  So what’s the point?

In his cunning way, James Elkins, during his Lawyers & Film course that I took in law school, responded to questions of this variety by drawing two boxes on the blackboard: one representing law, the other film.

“We’ve gotta get from this box to this box,” he explained, retracing the diagram with the tip of his chalk.  “One place to start,” he suggested, “is with the movie scenes depicting lawyers or the courtroom.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Erie Doctrine Flowchart

In Advocacy, Civil Procedure, Communication, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics, Teaching on June 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Jonathan Board lives in Northern Appalachia with his wife and three children.  A graduate of West Virginia University College of Law, he has also attended Harvard Extension School, Fairmont State University, and the University of Cincinnati. Beyond legal commentary, he enjoys civic and community volunteerism, theological and ethical discourse, technologies, and athletic coaching.

The Erie doctrine vexes law students year after year.  For that reason, Mr. Board created this flow chart to help struggling law students through their Civil Procedure courses.

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.  Read the rest of this entry »

Discourse and Legal Writing Instructors

In Communication, Information Design, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Rhetoric & Communication on August 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm

My writing instructors in law school parroted a line that I considered both annoying and at times wrong:  “This is bad writing.”  The criteria for what constituted bad (as opposed to good) writing had to do, invariably, with rigid rules of grammar and syntax.  A sentence was “bad,” for example, if it failed to have a comma following an introductory prepositional phrase; or a sentence was good, even if it sounded awkward, so long as it did not violate any rule of basic grammar.  Such over-commitment to formalism quashed any sense of experimentation or creativity that the students might have had.  Rather than trying out new styles and syntaxes, students confined their writing to short, plain statements of fact and conclusion.  Their papers read like boring how-to manuals: monotone and tedious, never lively and engaging.  The problem, as I see it, is that legal writing instructors have little awareness of audience.  They simply have no notion of what Stanley Fish calls “interpretive communities” and so have no notion of genre (categories of discourse) or performative text (text that mimics or signals certain categories of discourse).  Legal writing instructors locate students within a field of discourse akin to technical writing, but they never explain to students why technical writing is appropriate or even desirable in a legal context.  Instead, they inform students that anything that is not technical writing is bad, and they do so without realizing that different communities may have different expectations or prefer different techniques and vocabularies.  Legal writing instructors never explain that certain modes of writing can be good in other contexts but instead treat all writing as belonging to one classificatory scheme.  They force writing into one of two categories—good or bad—without regard to the quality of writing as contextualized in other communities.  Such habits simply will not do.      Read the rest of this entry »

Grappling With Story; or, Climbing into the Skin of Another: Applying Literary Truths to the Black Letter of Law

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy on July 19, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Jonathan Board lives in West Virginia with his wife and two children.  A graduate of West Virginia University College of Law, he has also attended Harvard Extension School, Fairmont State University, Bob Jones University, and Witherspoon School of Law & Public Policy.

“A literature class?  In law school?  Are you sure you want to spend your time and money on that?”

Thus spoke my perplexed supervising attorney.  Weeks later, as I reviewed the syllabus for Law & Literature, his words haunted me.  The names on the syllabus ranged from Komie to Tolstoy to Melville to Kafka.  Of course, “the list” (as it was to become known) was much longer and full of colorful personalities, but, at least in my mind, most of the readings seemed like odd studies for law school.  Nevertheless, I was in my last semester, and I simply could not look at another case book.  So, on a cold January day, I clambered up icy, ugly, gray-yellow steps, found my classroom and a seat next to my best friend (who had strongly encouraged me to take this course and whose judgment I now questioned), and I began to discuss literature, a thing I thought I knew little about.

The “list,” for me, was daunting.  I’d never taken a graduate literature course, and I was several years removed from my college English courses.  I felt like Abraham’s son, Isaac, about to be slaughtered, except that there was no ram in the thicket and I wasn’t submitting to a father’s trembling hand but to a law professor’s pen and grade sheet.  My fears were abated, to a degree, when the professor walked in.  I’d heard that this man, Michael Blumenthal, had taught at Harvard and published works in many genres.  I was both excited to sit in his classroom and nervous about embarrassing myself in front of him.  I didn’t know it then, but Blumenthal, whose kindness was contagious, would make a lasting impression.  He encouraged me—us—to devour the works on the list and to apply those works to personal experiences with the law. Read the rest of this entry »

A Defense of Law-and-Literature

In Arts & Letters, Jurisprudence, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Literary Theory & Criticism on May 7, 2010 at 2:58 pm

“Why study literature in professional school?” people have asked when I said that I work in a discipline called law-and-literature. I usually reply, “For the same reason we study math from elementary school until college: to learn about ‘truth.’”

The concept of “truth” has become the subject of ridicule. The postmodern era of scholarship, with its roots in poststructuralism, deconstruction, and narratology, ushered in new conceptions of metaphysics and ontology: all texts, indeed all things emanating from texts, whether cultural norms or social values, are at variance with themselves. Nothing has essential meaning; everything is indeterminate and arbitrary. The self-evident “meaning” perceived by individuals is socially constructed, having been centered or passed down through networks of people and events. These, at any rate, are the simplistic accusations put forth by those fed up with postmodernist presuppositions.

I’m no enemy of postmodernism, but I tend to agree with French theorist Bruno Latour, who claims that we have never been modern, so we cannot have been postmodern, and besides, there is something to this concept of “truth.”  Why else would we have mathematics? Mathematics, like literature, has the capacity to bring about answers. True answers. Postmodernism has never quite debunked this truth-seeking field. Read the rest of this entry »

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