Director Penn Program on Documentaries & the Law
Using social justice issues to make visual legal advocacy an integral part of future lawyers practices.
Digital audiovisual technology and social media are tools, not just toys. Law students enrolled in the Visual Legal Advocacy Seminar at Penn Law School use that technology, their knowledge of the law, and insights from cinema and communication studies to make short non-fiction videos about social justice issues. Their engagement with the issues is not abstract or theoretical.
They work with the clients of established public interest organisations and the activists of grassroots social justice groups who welcome the opportunity to present their own cases in a way that attracts the support of others to their cause. Public officials, experts, and citizens on the street are also included in the videos.
Because the students bring an array of production skills to the Seminar, young professional videographers are enlisted to serve as facilitators to the working crews. All costs of production are assumed by the Penn Program on Documentaries & the Law. Once the videos are completed, they are distributed via social media (like YouTube and the websites of the cooperating organisations), public access television, and public screenings sponsored by the Documentaries & the Law Program, including our annual Rough Cut Video Festivals and VLA Roundtables, the latter of which are directed at the practicing public interest bar.
Among the subjects the students have addressed are immigrant women and domestic violence, juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, SSI benefits for children with disabilities, employment discrimination against persons with criminal records, and tension between black and Asian students at a local high school. To see the videos please see here or here.
1. Can you briefly describe the innovation, in terms of the problem(s) it tries to solve and why is it necessary?
Lawyers whose clients can afford it have been engaging in visual legal advocacy or argumentation for some time. Lawyers who represent clients of limited means whose claims are demands for social justice have not. There are few models or templates for visual legal advocacy on behalf of individuals or groups waging legal battles in the public interest. Yet, rapid advancements in digital technology suggest that visual forms of legal advocacy will proliferate in the future. Moreover, the public is increasingly relying on visual media as an important source of information about law and social justice. Lawyers in turn have begun to appreciate the role visual advocacy can play in mobilizing citizen support for legal reform.
Thus, visual legal advocacy is likely to become another area of disparity between the haves and the have-nots if law schools do not act. The Visual Legal Advocacy Seminar addresses this situation by providing law students the opportunity to learn the theory and the skills associated with visual legal advocacy at the same time that they offer social justice clients, activists and the lawyers who work for them the benefit of visual advocacy. The Seminar hones the students’ practical storytelling, interviewing, and researching skills; sensitizes students and lawyers to the nuances of effective, ethical visual as opposed to verbal persuasion; allows the students to work with experienced lawyers which assures that the videos will have sound legal content; incentivizes practicing lawyers to attempt visual legal advocacy themselves; and informs government officials and the public about social justice issues that the established visual media ignore or shun.
2. What makes your innovation unique?
The Visual Legal Advocacy Seminar has been in existence for roughly five years. While several other law schools have student groups devoted to making documentaries based on student interest, the Seminar is a course that recognises that digital audiovisual technology and social media are tools that will be an inescapable integral part of future lawyers’ practices. The seminar at Penn is unique in that it works closely with public interest law organisations, actual clients, and committed grassroots activists. It hosts annual Roundtables and Rough Cut Festivals that expose practicing lawyers to examples of visual legal advocacy and encourage them to generate projects for Seminar participants. We also make our equipment and support available to Roundtable participants, former seminar members and current students who want to try their hands at visual legal advocacy. As far as we know, there are no other pro bono or clinical programs at law schools involving the production of visual legal advocacy on behalf of actual clients and causes.
3. What triggered the development of the innovation?
The Seminar grew out of my extensive use of documentaries in teaching torts or accident law and my scholarly interest in law and cultural studies. In the course of teaching Documentaries & the Law, I learned that personal injury lawyers and criminal lawyers were engaged in visual legal advocacy. As I analyzed the existing forms of visual legal advocacy and wrote about them, I realised that the legal academy should be more involved in analyzing, teaching and impacting the law and lawyering involved in the production of any nonfiction visual work as well as the production of visual legal advocacy. Actually producing visual legal advocacy is essential to truly understanding the complexity of the legal, ethical, aesthetic and policy issues it raises.
4. Which persons and organisations were involved in the development and what role did they play?
The Seminar evolved because of established supportive relationships with a core group of lawyers affiliated with public interest organisations (Community Legal Services, HAIS, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society), X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, a grassroots prisoner re-entry service organisation, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations and Martin Brigham, Esq. a lawyer in private practice, all of whom saw the value of the Visual Legal Advocacy Seminar early on. Colleagues in Cinema Studies, the Annenberg School of Communication, and Van Pelt Library’s digital media lab were especially supportive in sharing their theoretical and practical expertise. In addition, enrollment in the Seminar of creative and dedicated students with either developed technical video production skills or the willingness to learn has greatly enhanced the ability of the Seminar to produce videos of a progressively higher quality.
5. What kind of resistance have you encountered and how have you overcome it?
Law schools and the legal profession have just been slow to embrace the implications of the visual digital revolution for the legal profession. The resistance has come from skeptics in the legal academy who dismiss visual legal advocacy as a form of practical learning that is not intellectually challenging or susceptible of rigorous scholarly analysis. Of course, times do change. Experiential learning is more valued today because of demands from the profession that law schools better prepare young lawyers for actual practice. The work also speaks for itself. The persuasive power of the Seminar students’ videos has grown as production values have improved. Seminar students will vouch that producing a 20-minute video on a social justice issue with the involvement of multidisciplinary experts, experienced public interest lawyers, and people whose lives are actually affected by injustice is mentally hard work.
6. How did you make the goals realistic and attainable, and when will quick wins be available?
I began collecting and distributing, when requested by capital defenders, videos made on behalf of defendants sentenced to death. I decided to get students involved in making pardon videos for everyday people whose dated criminal records were still a burden to their leading fully productive lives. Those projects went well. However, the need to take on a broader range of visual legal advocacy in support of social justice causes soon became apparent. The students wanted to expand the scope of their work beyond a single individual and tackle some of the systemic wrongs they were encountering in their studies and their extracurricular activities.
7. Will the innovation affect other organisations in the chain and if that is the case, how will it affect them?
Several schools have undertaken similar courses. A number of independent filmmakers have submitted proposals to teach similar courses at other schools.
8. How was the development funded and what were reasons for the financing organisation?
The Visual Media Lab which supplies the students with the technology to do visual legal advocacy was funded by a grant from Penn’s Vice Provost for Research. The Lab director and chief video facilitator is a member of the Law School’s ITS staff. The director generally winds up carrying more than the half-time load allotted by his job description. The Seminar could not operate without the assistance of freelance videographers who are willing to work with the students for less than commercial rates. Operating expenses come from my faculty research budget, my summer research support grant, and my contributions to the Law School. Everyone connected with the Seminar believes in its mission of promoting the production and proliferation of visual legal advocacy for social justice claimants and makes sacrifices accordingly.
9. Can you name 3 to 5 characteristics of the innovation that are most essential to make it work?
There are at least 5 factors that are essential to the success of the Seminar:
- Students who are both intrigued by the challenge of making a potentially impactful social justice video and willing to make the sacrifices required to complete the job;
- Social justice advocates and activists who are willing to teach the students how to be humane and ethical when pointing cameras at people experiencing and challenging injustice;
- Public interest practitioners who believe, sometimes without much evidence, that law students can produce persuasive quality visual work that advances the cause of social justice;
- Skilled videographers who are willing to work with students, for lots of credit but not much money, in the pursuit of the greater good;
- A law school administration that will allow a new and innovative program to progress, learn from its mistakes and bear fruit.
10. How do you measure whether it is a successful innovation?
There are myriad ways by which the success of the Seminar thus far might be measured. Hits on You Tube, inquiries from filmmakers who want to teach the Seminar elsewhere, graduates of the Seminar who want to borrow cameras to undertake projects on their own and recognition by the National Law Journal.
11. How many people or organisations benefit from this innovation now?
The seminar produces between three and five videos a year. Most involve the direct involvement and cooperation of three or more public interest law organisations or grassroots groups and five or more informants and experts. The issues that are the subject of the videos typically impact thousands of people.
12. How many people or organisations could potentially benefit your innovation now and in the future? Can or will the innovation be used internationally and how do you overcome cultural differences?
The video work that has been done in the human rights area by organizations like WITNESS is proof of the usefulness and persuasive power of visual storytelling and argumentation in the international arena. Lawyers simply need to catch up. The teaching and production of visual legal advocacy by law schools has the potential for international and cross-cultural adoption.
13. Can you quantify the financial benefits?
14. Is the innovation financially viable and sustainable and if yes, how?
The cost of visual digital technology is declining as its utility for non-experts is increasing. More and more students are coming to law school with the technical skills to direct, produce and create videos that they acquired in their undergraduate course work and extracurricular pursuits. The out-of-pocket cost of a Seminar video can run from $100 to $3,000 depending on the skill level of the students working on the project, the amount of work or teaching the facilitator does, the use of animation, and the complexity of the subject.
15. Did you receive any recognition?
The National Law Journal recently included Penn Law’s Visual Legal Advocacy Seminar on its list of law school innovations.
16. What lessons did you learn along the way that could be useful to others?
I hope that the lessons learned at Penn Law will not have to be repeated by others who undertake to run a visual legal advocacy seminar. We are willing to share our experiences with others.