Law School students study legal advocacy through documentaries
"Documentaries and the Law" was started in 2005 by Regina Austin to combine a law curriculum with filmmaking
March 12, 2012, 9:39 pm · Updated March 12, 2012, 9:40 pm·
A group of future lawyers is using its more creative side to bring public interest advocacy to the movie screen.
Since 2005, Law School students have had access to a unique interdisciplinary program that combines the law curriculum with instruction on filmmaking.
The goal of “Documentaries and the Law,” which is taught by Law professor Regina Austin, is to both analyze law documentaries and create these videos as a form of legal advocacy.
Austin believes such a program is important for future lawyers, as this is an age in which technology reigns and video may send a message to society better than any other medium.
“Video conveys information … much more expeditiously than the written word does,” she said. “It’s also a vehicle for getting the message out to a broader population so that it is in some ways democratizing legal discourse. That’s something that I think law schools should be really engaged in.”
For third-year Law student Noor Najeeb, the program has both taught her the legal issues presented in the process of making documentaries — such as consent and censorship — and has given her new tools for legal advocacy.
“It has helped contextualize legal issues and put human faces on abstract problems,” Najeeb wrote in an email. “Thinking about your audience or consent issues when making a documentary requires that you think about your position from multiple perspectives, address its strengths and weaknesses and deliver your message in the most effective manner.”
Austin, who said she has always used documentaries as a supplement to her teaching, said she created “Documentaries and the Law” after realizing that she had built up a “terrific documentary collection” over time.
“Professor Austin’s Documentaries and the Law program takes this level of advocacy one step further by allowing students to research, interact with and master the practical, procedural and policy related issues of any given legal issue,” third-year Law student Nate Koonce wrote in an email. “More importantly, students are able to tackle issues that are relevant and essential to marginalized communities both domestically and internationally.”
In addition to advocating for communities and their members, the program helps students learn to take advantage of media and technology to benefit their work.
“Media is all around us and is constantly being used as a tool of persuasion,” Najeeb wrote. “Learning how to harness visual media for the sake of legal advocacy can make you a more effective lawyer.”
Austin agreed, adding that the law community is slowly coming to embrace digital media, though potentially for different reasons.
“They’re finding social media in ways that they have not before, but I’m not sure that they use it as a tool for advancing client causes,” she said. “That’s basically what we’re showing here.”
According to Austin, this program also makes Penn Law unique from other top-tier law schools.
Unlike the law documentary programs at Yale and Stanford universities — which are only offered as extracurriculars — students who participate in Austin’s program receive course credit.
Over the years, some topics of the student-produced documentaries have ranged from gambling in the black community to mothers who are in prison.
“We also make videos that are intended to support public interest activities in the community,” Austin added. “We’re tied to the community, providing a service to the community.”