Writing the Course

The writing you do for the course can be both enjoyable and something you can use beyond the course. I will offer whatever assistance I am capable to ensure that your writing for the course is productive and instructive.

There is an emerging body of legal scholarship—scholarly essays and books—devoted to legal films, and you may want to peruse this body of scholarly work over the course of the semester.

As an alternative to a traditional research paper, I invite you to to consider a "course writing," an essay in which you, literally, write the course. In "Reading/ Teaching Lawyer Films," 28 Vt. L. Rev. 813 (2004), I have written the course from a teacher's perspective. I am not suggesting that you follow or mimic this essay. My essay grew out of the discovery that while there was an emerging field of legal film scholarship, no one was talking about what we might do in a lawyer films course. Your course writing, in contrast to my essay, will draw on the interest that drew you to the course, your experience of the course films, and the use you make of our class discussion and course website resources. Your course writing is a response to the admonition: put the films to sse.

For a "course writing":

1) put yourself and your experience of the films to use in your writing;

2) focus on the films and let what you find in the films be a guide to what you write;

3) identify and follow themes and motifs that you see emerging in/from the films;

4) use the films to focus on the issues and concerns you have about lawyers and the legal profession, and about your place in the world of law and lawyering, and your place in world you inhabit beyond law.

One way you might begin to think about your writing for the course is to see it as a respond to two questions:

What am I doing here? . . . in this course . . . in law school . . . what am I doing as I try to think and sometimes try not to think about my future as a lawyer?

How can I put lawyer films to use in my education as a lawyer?

[For a student paper, later published, that exemplifies this idea of "writing the course," see Deidre Purdy's Lawyers & Literature--As My Mother Lay Dying, Spring, 1997. The Purdy essay was written for my Lawyers and Literature course. You may find additional commentary on the Lawyers and Literature course website that will be of use in the Lawyers and Film course: Lawyers and Literature.]

There is no required structure for the "course writing." You are not expected to write about every film screened in the course. Some of you will, I suspect, be tempted to write about the films, serially, film-by-film. You should, absent a clear sense of what you are trying to do, avoid the temptation. Finding the right structure for your "course writing" is a challenge, and it is quite important. It can made the difference between a creative engaging piece of writing and a writing that does little more than say, "I just want to survive the course."

There is no maximum page limit for your course writing. Commonsense and experience suggest that those who write more tend to have more to say, and in saying it, present a broader, deeper engagement with the course films. Brilliance can, obviously, be found in something short; more often a short paper sends the signal that you have little to say (and, as it happens, having little to say is not at all that easy to hide).

I have eliminated the usual gruel of required weekly readings. I do this not with the idea that you cannot benefit from the recommended books and website materials. Keep in mind: I expect you to use the time you would have allotted to "required" reading to focus on reading that you can put to use in your course writing.

By inviting you to write the course, and to chart your own way, I do not mean to suggest that "anything goes." If you have any lingering notion that anything you write will suffice, you should retool your thinking. I expect you to take the writing for this course with the utmost seriousness—and yes, enjoy it.

If you have any questionsany questions at allabout your course writing and how this kind of writing is done, then you should meet with me to discuss your concerns and your writing. I am available to read drafts of anything you write for the course at any time during the semester.

I provide you with:

a fully developed description of the Lawyers and Film course, its history, and how the course films and your writing about them might be viewed as part of your education as a lawyer;

commentary on how you can begin to read lawyer films and evaluate the claim that they have a part in your education as a lawyer;

web resource materials on each of the films screened in the course (and resource materials on the study of films more generally).

The materials I provide on the course website, as well as the class discussion of the films, should provide you with a host of ideas to make use of in your writing.

There are various sources you may find useful as you "write the course":

class discussions will often focus on the fundamental nature of our undertaking—what are we doing here?—what should we be doing?—how is one to make use of the films we watch?

instructor's notes, questions, and web resources provided for a significant number of the course films;

articles, essays, and commentary on particular films, as well as film reviews and film criticism (essays by both legal and non-legal scholars);

books recommended for supplementary reading in the course;

the chapter on the humanist approach to film criticism in Tim Bywater & Thomas Sobchack's Introduction to Film Criticism (New York: Longman, 1989)

an email note to me at any time, or a conversation before or after class, or conversation with me in my office.

If there is a single book on writing that might be of help to you in Lawyers and Film, and beyond, it is Peter Elbow's Writing With Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1998) (The text in the 2nd edition is unchanged from the 1st edition.)


Notes from Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers


Peter Elbow resources


[Some years ago, I taught a course on The Lawyer as Writer. You may find resources on the course website that will be of use in writing for the Lawyers and Film course.]

It is your responsibility to figure out how to write the course, and how you can demonstrate excellence in this writing.

Your course writing will be evaluated on the basis of the following criteria:

soundness and quality of the writing;

nature, complexity, and development of the ideas presented;

an appropriate creative structure;

demonstrated engagement with the assigned films (the films you elect to write about);

range and depth of your use of the films in thinking about becoming and being a lawyer.

Your course writing is a way to tell a reader that you have become a student of lawyer films, and that you have learned something from them. In "writing the course," you direct a reader's attention to what you have seen and what you have learned about yourself and about what it means to be a lawyer that the films better allow you to articulate.

As a reader of your course writing, I will ask:

What kind of strategy does the writer embrace when she talks about lawyer films and explains (or fails to explain) why she is working with particular films?

Do we learn, from the writing, why particular films were selected (and others ignored)?

What kind work, that is, what kind of engagement with the films, is reflected in the writing?

What questions—what kind of questions?—have been raised by the films and addressed in the writing?

What obstacles to reading and studying lawyer films has the writer identified, confronted, and addressed?

What is this writer telling us about the value and utility of lawyer films, and about the obstacles to putting the films to use?

Given the nature of the writing, and the work you must do in preparation for it, it seems prudent to begin to think about how to undertake the writing—now—even as you begin the course.

I assume that, like the instructor, you have no background in film studies and that you did not enroll in the course because you have a desire to be a film studies student. This raises the question: What are you doing in the course? And for that matter, what is the instructor doing in the course? I have attempted to answer that question, and will continue to do so as the course proceeds. One might want to ask: What is this course doing in a law school? What place does it have in the curriculum? (Consider this question: What can you learn about the legal profession and about your self from lawyer films that cannot be learned in traditional law school course offerings?) If you set out, in a thoughtful and imaginative way, to answer these questions, you are, already, on your way to "writing the course." Keep in mind: "In every kind of writing, defining the nature of the operation, devising ways of tackling it, and explaining its meaning and implication to oneself are essential stages that the mind engages." [James Britton, et al., Development of Writing Abilities 90 (1975)(cited in Judith Kalman & Calvin Kalman, "Writing to Learn," Newsletter of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education)]

Further Observations & Questions:

When I first started teaching Lawyers and Film, I set out to learn more about the field of film studies. What do film students do when they watch films? What are they expected to learn from and about the films they watch? How are they taught to interpret, critique and understand films? Reading in the field of film studies, I concluded that in Lawyers and Film, we must devise our own questions.

I am an advocate of the notion that anything called legal education that does not encourage you to think about what it means to become a lawyer is impoverished. One way to honor the "meaning question" is to introduce you to introspective/reflective writing. The law school curriculum offers little to suggest the place or the need to learn the skill and the art of reflection. In legal education, we rally around the idea that we are teaching you to "think like a lawyer," and that we teach skills associated with case analysis, brief writing, and appellate argument, but we don't bother to encourage you to broaden, deepen, and sharpen your skills of reflection. Some of you may be unnerved by your first efforts at reflective writing. This should be a signal that you have been invited to work on an unpracticed skill. It may turn out to be a skill that saves your life.

Do lawyer films constitute a genre, and if so, how can the genre be described?

David Mamet, a playwright, screenwriter, and director, observes that an audience—shall we say a reader?—"will not suffer, wonder, discover, or rejoice to any extent greater than that to which the writer has been subjected." Mamet goes on to admonish the reader: "It is laudable to resist [the] nagging invitation to sloth and predictability." [David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 61, 62 (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)]

"[W]riters write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. A revision process does not stop until the writing is fully realized." [Sheila Bender, Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page 2 (Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1995)]

In an Australian Film forum in 2005 on "How Film Critics Work," Julia Rigg, a film critic for the Australian Broadcasting Commission argued that the film critic's role is "to provide a response to a film and a context for it." Adrian Martin, film critic and scholar, observes that the "[t]he role of the film critic is to write well, or speak well. A critic is someone who . . . should try to tell a story about the film that they're reviewing. And the story can be the story of their response to it, the story of their coming to understand that film, coming to a position on it." "How Film Critics Work," A Roundtable Discussion, Australian Film, Televsion and Radio School, Brisbane International Film Festival, 2005 [online text]

How do we explain the appearance, the public reception, and proliferation of lawyer films? What does the public learn about lawyers from lawyer films?

Video Footnote: On Writing

Law Library Reserve

"Writing a Film Essay: Observations, Arguments, Research, and Analysis," in Timothy Corrigan & Patricia White, The Film Experience: An Introduction 474-516 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004)

John Denvir (ed.), Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996)

Michael Asimow & Shannon Mader, Law and Popular Culture (New York: Peter Lang, 2004)

Internet Resources: Writing about Films

Writing in the Dark: The Difference between Journalism and Criticism
Laments the lameness of contemporary film review writing and the many ways it can be done badly; complimenting reviewer David Ansen for "his prose of connections, discriminations, and measurements" and David Denby for describing and evaluating "the deep structures that make a film's meanings possible" (a "proper function of criticism"); a subtle exploration of the work of reviewer Stanley Kauffman; arguing that Ray Carney's Writing in the Dark: The Difference between Journalism and Criticism should be required reading for film students.


Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing About Film (New York: Longman, 8th ed. 2011)

Elizabeth McMahan, Robert Funk & Susan Day, The Elements of Writing about Literature and Film (New York: Macmillan, 1988)

William H. Phillips, Analyzing Films: A Practical Guide (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985)