Training tomorrow’s lawyers through the power of documentary filmmaking

For Penn Law’s Regina Austin, video is a powerful tool for legal advocacy.

It’s a way to tell clients’ stories, place complicated issues quickly in context, and put faces and names to issues that may not see the light of day in more traditional media outlets.

“It’s a great medium for telling stories and relating those stories to macro-concerns,” says Austin, the William A. Schnader Professor of Law. “In a video, you can do both of those things much better, I think, than you can with the written word, and certainly more expeditiously. The ability to move back and forth between the story and the systemic context in which the story arises and develops—it’s a wonderful tool and that’s, I think, the real benefit.”

Through the Penn Program on Documentaries & the Law, Austin is teaching between 12 and 18 law students each year about the power of visual storytelling. Austin, director of the Program, leads a year-long seminar in which future lawyers team up to create videos on social justice issues. Topics range from criminal justice debt in Philadelphia and domestic violence against women in immigrant communities, to the impact of incarceration on motherhood and legal and social implications of gambling in the black community. Videos can be found on the Program’s website: www.law.upenn.edu/institutes/documentaries/.

“Video informs the public, it informs the class of people who are directly impacted, it informs the decision-makers about the impact of the law,” says Austin. “[It’s] important that we can make the benefits of visual legal advocacy available to people who would not otherwise have the means and the wherewithal to tell their stories.”

Lawyers, she adds, are good at telling other people’s stories—but they tend to not do it with digital media.

“It’s important, I think, for lawyers to look upon nonfiction filmmaking, video-making, as a means of legitimate advocacy. It’s pretty clear that tomorrow’s lawyers and today’s lawyers, as well, [are] going to be operating in many more fora than in the past,” Austin notes. “Lawyers are operating within conditional courtrooms, working with traditional decision-makers, judges, they’re involved in administration work.”

Austin had long incorporated the use of documentaries in her teaching before formally founding the program about six years ago. She found that plaintiff lawyers were making settlement films to facilitate the mediation and arbitration of personal injury actions, as well as clemency videos, and thought her students could also try their hand at filmmaking. 

Initially, Austin intended her students to make clemency videos, or films for people with criminal records seeking pardons who needed extra support in the process. But the seminar evolved into producing videos for social justice clients and causes.

In the first semester of the year-long course, students learn how to develop a storyline and are introduced to the camera and editing process. They shoot in January and February, and spend the month of March editing the films. In early April, the program holds a Rough Cut Video Festival, where they invite the participants in the videos, as well as public interest lawyers, to screen the documentaries.

Tim Isler, a 2012 Penn Law graduate, took Austin’s seminar during the 2011-12 school year, and, along with classmates Sam Saylor and Yaya Wu, made “Pay Up! Criminal Justice Debt in Philadelphia.” The team earned the Benjamin R. Jones Award for outstanding contribution to the public interest for their work—the first time that award had been given to a video team.

Isler says the topic appealed to the team because it was practical, and also a subject that tended to shock members of the general public once they learned more about the issue of criminal court debt. While the topic had received considerable news coverage in recent years, Isler notes the stories tended to be one-sided. The team saw a chance to provide a more complete picture.

Isler has a background in documentary filmmaking and journalism, and says the experience underscored the importance of a journalistic skill set in practicing law. “Law demands that you tell a good story, focus in on the most salient details, and communicate your ideas and your position effectively to other people. The seminar was a useful way to get students thinking about those concepts and skills,” he says.

In addition, it got Isler and his fellow students to focus their attention outside the classroom to see how the law directly impacts people’s lives.

“Getting out into new neighborhoods in Philadelphia, meeting citizens, hearing their stories, shedding light on a legal issue that is being debated right now, possibly influencing that debate—other Law School classes don’t give you that opportunity.”

Austin notes the importance of giving people featured in the students’ films the opportunity to speak for themselves and tell their stories.

“You can also sensitize law students and young lawyers to the ethics of filmmaking that I think is very much related to the ethics of being a good public interest lawyer,” she says. “When you sit down across from somebody who tells you how she went to the welfare office to get [assistance] for her children who are United States citizens and she’s told she’s not deserving and she does not belong here—you have to respond to that if you’re on the other side of that conversation, even if you have got a camera in front of you or next to you. So, there’s real engagement there.”

Videos are available on the Program’s website, www.law.upenn.edu/institutes/documentaries/, as well as on Penn Law’s YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/user/pennlawschool.

Originally published on December 13, 2012