Every attorney has a favorite legal-based film or story. Whether it’s a seminal classic such as To Kill a Mockingbird or 12 Angry Men, a blockbuster drama in the vein of A Few Good Men, or a comedy that looks at the lighter side of the courtroom like My Cousin Vinny, fictional characters influence and even inspire many to pursue a legal profession. What if those same characters can also be used to teach law by examining their idealistic qualities and pragmatic faults? That is the premise of a new Cleveland-Marshall College of Law course, Law, Literature and Film.
The course was developed and taught by Professor Pamela Daiker-Middaugh, and held in the new Rawson Learning Commons with its open, technology-friendly space designed for collaborative learning and discussion.
Law, Literature and Film fulfills students’ Perspective course requirement, in which they take one course that examines the law in a new or different way. This course uses literature and film to consider a number of questions about the relationship between law and justice, the creation of rule regimes and the role of courts and trials in a social system. Other issues covered include discussions on race/class/gender and the law, legal ethics, legal education, the adversarial system and the relationship between law and popular culture.
“Can literature and film enrich our understanding of the role of law in our society,” posed Daiker-Middaugh. “I believe that it can and am interested in the interdisciplinary connection between law, literature and film.”
The course was structured so that students would watch a legal-themed film or read a legal-based short story each class session, and then dissect the key legal aspects of the story through small group work, role playing, student-led discussions, presentations or papers. In addition to the four films above, students watched films including Civil Action and The Verdict and read stories including The Lottery and A Jury of Her Peers. So far, student feedback has been consistently positive.
While Daiker-Middaugh selected specific films and literature to emphasize important legal topics, she was not alone in presenting the works to the class. Several Cleveland-Marshall alumni and professors were brought in to the class to guest lecture on the film or story most influential to them.
One such guest lecturer was Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Donnelly ’91, who led the viewing and discussion of his favorite film, A Few Good Men. Donnelly claims to have watched the movie over 50 times and has even used the film as a theme in legal scholarship.
“I believe an entire course could be taught around A Few Good Men,” explained Donnelly. “The film contains so many important lessons for a future advocate. I feel the film represents the most important ideal in our adversarial criminal justice system which is that, at its core, the criminal trial is a search for the truth.”
Donnelly watched the film with the class, stopping at several points to evoke discussion on discovery, preparation and the courtroom action. He feels both realistic and unrealistic legal depictions provide strong teachable moment, including the climactic scene between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. While overly dramatized, the scene highlights important lessons on preparing for cross examination and the pitfalls that can exist. As a whole, he commends the movie for centering on ideals of the criminal justice system – a prosecutor seeking truth and justice; defense counsel protecting the rights of their clients; and a neutral judge and jury following the law.
“Overall I do not feel the movie is that far-fetched. Having the privilege of sitting as a judge for 12 years, I continue to be amazed by the incredible factual scenarios and compelling human drama I encounter,” explained Donnelly.
When looking at the course as a whole, Donnelly wishes he had the opportunity to take such an elective during his time as a C|M|LAW student.
“I would have loved this class,” he said. “I really believe innovative classes like this teach important lessons about the practice of law that will resonate throughout an attorney’s career. These stories also help to reflect on some of the reasons for becoming a lawyer in the first place.”