Unteaching Television: Identity, Politics, and the Female Lawyer on TV
Posted: 29 Jun 2012 Last revised: 15 May 2014
Date Written: June 28, 2012
Media and popular culture have long interested people of all ages who seek out entertainment products in order to relax and escape. Television, movies, books, magazines, and other media can transport a person from a living room sofa to a world of high stakes intrigue, mysterious characters, magical creatures, and futuristic fantasies. But media is more than merely a tool to entertain and relax; media is also a powerful tool for learning. The images and stories we see in film and television teach us about other people, other places, and other value systems. At its highest level, a well told story, presented through effective media, can be a tool that teaches empathy and in doing so enhances the humanistic qualities of even casual watchers. At its worst, however, the media can teach viewers that violence, greed, and anti-social behaviors are not only commonplace but also acceptable. For lawyers, the media is an especially important representation of professional and personal experience; most of the United States population experiences lawyering and gathers information about lawyers — their values, habits, work-life structure, and language — from watching actors represent lawyers in film and television. For the public, and for beginning law students in particular, these representations can mislead and misinform.
The processes by which viewers are learning from film and television are schema and transfer processes, and an increased awareness of those processes will help first year law professors and other members of the profession to dispel and reverse inaccurate cultural understandings and improper uses of “lawyering” language. This article will first lay out the basic theories of learning by schema and transfer and the ways in which viewers of legal stories are influenced — and indeed learn — through the process of viewing. The article will then focus on three broad, media-based misconceptions related to law school and practice: that law school is easy; that prosecutors, but not defense attorneys, are most valued by society; and that the language of the law requires a kind of legalese, or deliberately opaque and heightened language. Finally, the article will propose interventions that can be used at the law school level to dispel the misconceptions students have learned by consuming media and to help first year law students redefine the notion of effective legal language such that they are better able to write, think, and succeed.
Keywords: Media, popular culture, schema theory, transfer, teaching, legal writing, learning theory, Law and Order, Legally Blonde, The Paper Chase
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