Law School: The Movie

At the University of Texas, watching is learning

Published in 2003 Texas Super Lawyers — November 2003

Law students at the University of Texas are just like students anywhere, except for one notable difference. When they want to ingratiate themselves to a professor, they don’t bring an apple to class. They bring popcorn.

At the UT Law School, watching movies is as much a part of the curriculum as reading Corbin on Contracts or Prosser on Torts. According to its Web site, the school’s Tarlton Law Library boasts around 650 law-related films, from The Verdict and To Kill a Mockingbird to Bedtime for Bonzo and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

Marlyn Robinson is the curator of the Law and Popular Culture film collection at Tarlton. She has been working at the library since the late eighties and is responsible for adding new titles to the collection.“There are about twenty other law libraries that have movies, but none have nearly as many as we do,” she says.

Films are used in class by professors to illustrate specific areas of law, Robinson explains. For example, students studying estate law are often shown Body Heat, which includes a scene that describes the tricky Rule Against Perpetuities (and you thought people rented it for the steamy Kathleen Turner scenes).

“It’s sort of a subversive teaching method,” Robinson concedes.“I think students get a lot out of the movies because they’re learning while being entertained.”

Movies are also available to be checked out by students; videos make up roughly 10 percent of the library’s circulation. The most popular movie that students request is not even about America’s judicial system, Robinson says. It’s A Fish Called Wanda, the John Cleese vehicle that provides a thumbnail sketch of England’s criminal justice process.

Although many law movies tend to misrepresent the practice of law—and some are even flat-out offensive to the legal mind (Pauly Shore’s Jury Duty)—Robinson says the two movies that she and her students agree most accurately depict the legal system are Anatomy of a Murder and Presumed Innocent.

Anatomy of a Murder is great because it was written by a criminal-defense lawyer [Wendell Mayes], who wrote it out of frustration at the law movies he was watching at the time… It was also directed by a lawyer [Otto Preminger],” she says. “With Presumed Innocent, we screened it in a classroom filled with professors and students, and everyone agreed it was pretty accurate.”

When asked to name her favorite law movie, Robinson demurs. “I’d have to pick my favorite one hundred, I love so many of them.”

Robinson plans to continue adding to the library’s collection, noting that there are “thousands of law-related movies” in existence. Since she pays only matinee prices when purchasing videos (“I will not pay more than $20 for a title”), students who want to watch a new release will still have to go to a theater.

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