Sunday, October 5, 2014

Law & Literature: The Humanities and Teaching Legal Skills

As law schools increasingly promise to turn out “practice ready” graduates, they focus on teaching how-to-do-it skills in a way that is practical only in the narrowest sense. Lawyers, however, are not plumbers or software coders. To be capable lawyers, students also must understand the human condition. They will be dealing with people and all their complexities. Understanding people, then, also is a practical skill, often best learned by studying the humanities.

Let me address a popular target: courses that deal with law and literature. When it comes to legal education, is literature irrelevant? No. Literature teaches us about the human condition, an essential subject for students and practitioners. I support my argument by referring you to two excellent pieces of scholarship.

In Mary Ann Becker’s What is Your Favorite Book?: Using Narrative to Teach Theme Development in Persuasive Writing,46 Gonzaga 575 (2010/2011),  she explains how she lets students talk about their favorite book  to learn about using theme and narrative, essential persuasive skills. Here is the abstract:

 This article explores new theories in the area of narrative, applied storytelling, and literature as a means to teach persuasive writing. Students, even upper level ones, often cannot answer the question: "Who cares what happens in this case?" While part of a student's perplexity as to how to apply the theory of the case arises from a lack of experience, part of it also arises from the fact that students are not able to identify with the client's story. Because good writers come from good readers, I developed a technique using students' favorite books in order to give them a concrete example of what constituted good writing and to help them answer the question of "who cares." This article analyzes the three points of view broadly presented in a narrative text and how this literary technique uses those three points of view to remedy the disparity between the abstract concepts of the theory of the case and its concrete application in a persuasive brief. By using students' descriptions of their favorite books to illustrate the underlying theme in something familiar to them, students implicitly identify the three points of view in a narrative text: the character's, the teller's, and the reader's. My article posits that these three points of view are necessary to understand and develop the theme of a brief, which makes them better able to transport a reader and control the outcome of their client's case. Further, this literary technique comports with constructivist learning theories because it is a means of connecting prior educational experiences with new ones to better teach new skills.

 In his book, Storytelling for Lawyers, Philip Meyer uses both real cases and well-known fictional stories to teach us how to hone our persuasive skills, particularly at trial. Here is a description:

 Good lawyers have an ability to tell stories. Whether they are arguing a murder case or a complex financial securities case, they can capably explain a chain of events to judges and juries so that they understand them. The best lawyers are also able to construct narratives that have an emotional impact on their intended audiences. But what is a narrative, and how can lawyers go about constructing one? How does one transform a cold presentation of facts into a seamless story that clearly and compellingly takes readers not only from point A to point B, but to points C, D, E, F, and G as well? In Storytelling for Lawyers, Phil Meyer explains how. He begins with a pragmatic theory of the narrative foundations of litigation practice and then applies it to a range of practical illustrative examples: briefs, judicial opinions and oral arguments.


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