Law and Pop Culture:

Teaching and Learning about Law Using Images from Popular Culture

Paul R. Joseph

How do people learn what lawyers and judges do? Some take courses in American government and law. Some may know lawyers personally and talk with them about their work. Others may have sat on a jury or been a witness or party in a lawsuit. For many others, however, their primary source of “knowledge” about lawyers, judges, and even the legal system itself, may come from television, movies, and popular novels—in short, from “popular culture” sources.

In recent years, the field of law and popular culture has gained ground as something worth serious study. Law professors have been drawn into the area partly because the material seems both too rich and too pervasive to ignore. Some feel that law schools and the legal profession must do more to teach the general public about law, and that popular culture materials are one way of doing this.

Of course, the fact that so many people have been exposed to portrayals of law and lawyers in popular culture is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, popular culture provides many sources upon which to draw. On the other hand, some of this material portrays its subjects so badly that it may do more harm than good. Still, a number of us have found that popular culture images of law, lawyers, and the legal system are very useful in teaching about real law in the real world.


Analyzing the Messages

The relationship between real law and popular culture law is not simple. Popular culture is constantly sending messages about how the world “is,” and it is likely that these messages are accepted by the audience as mirroring reality, at least to some degree. Thus, popular culture may help to shape the public’s view of law and lawyers. Yet, especially when popular culture sets a drama in a legal setting, the audience expects “realism”; that is, the audience expects an accurate portrayal of how the law works or the presentation may be dismissed as “unrealistic” and lose its dramatic power. At the same time, such a dramatic portrayal of law and lawyers must take into account what the audience will accept. Thus, while popular culture may help to shape the public’s view of law and lawyers, it also may reinforce the prevailing view by showing scenes that are “believable” and “familiar” (if only because the audience has seen them before in other popular culture presentations).

This dual nature of law as presented in popular culture permits us to ask questions that can lead to good teaching and learning. First, we can ask what the images of law and lawyers in popular culture are, that is, what are the messages being transmitted about the subject? Second, we can ask whether these images tell us anything valuable about the real legal system.

First, what is the content of popular culture messages about the law and lawyers? What does The Practice or Devi#146;s Advocate tell us about lawyers? Are the messages the same as or different from those sent by The Defenders or To Kill a Mockingbird? Has popular culture changed the way it portrays lawyers over time? If so, does this mirror cause (or help to cause) a change in popular perceptions of law and lawyers?

Second, is the content of popular culture images of the law “accurate”? There is no doubt that popular culture portrayals of the legal system are rarely “accurate” in the literal sense. For example, we are used to seeing episodes of popular television series, such as Law and Order, in which a case moves from crime to conviction in an hour. Yet, Law and Order can be praised for showing us something important about prosecutorial discretion and for the way in which it encapsulates important legal issues. This goes for some other shows, including The Practice.

When I think about a film or television show or novel where law is a central theme, I think less about detailed accuracy and more about whether the portrayal is useful in understanding something important about law, lawyers, and the legal system. While some depictions are truly awful, many others are remarkably good, and very useful in teaching and learning about law. Of course, pointing out the inaccuracies about law in a film, for example, can lead to discussions about what would really happen in the situation portrayed, and that can also be valuable.


Teaching Different Audiences

Over the past eight years, I have incorporated popular culture images in teaching about law in a number of venues and to a number of different audiences. My experiences have been uniformly positive and have heightened my interest in this area. Here are some examples.

Several years ago, I was asked to teach a course in an undergraduate school of our university. My choice was a course in Science Fiction and Law. I structured the course around a number of “hot-button” societal issues and used both fictional and real legal materials. One focus was the question of rights. What does it take to be recognized as a person with the Constitutional rights of life and liberty? Certainly, the continuing debate about abortion is one manifestation of this issue, but so too is the animal rights movement. Historically, the battle over slavery raised similar issues.

A number of science fiction films, books, short stories, and television shows have struggled with the question of rights. I had students read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel upon which the film Blade Runner was based. Students also read a short story in which germs are granted legal rights, and another in which an inventor who creates a matter transmitter is declared legally dead after testing the device on himself. They also viewed an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the android Data must prove that he is a person with rights or he will be disassembled in a dangerous experiment to find out how he works. The excellent script, by lawyer Melinda Snodgrass, framed the issue well for class discussion.

Students also read applicable sections of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and cases including Roe v. Wade and Dred Scott v. Sandford. I have sometimes found that students have very rigid positions about issues like abortion and that discussions of it can degenerate into a rote recitation of already held positions. In my class, however, students encountered the question of rights in so many different forms that they had to rethink previously held views and make new arguments to support whatever position they were taking.

A year ago, I had the opportunity to teach a seminar on Law and Popular Culture to students at our law school. The students were very involved and found themselves wrestling with the way they thought of their role within their chosen profession as opposed to the images of lawyers they saw around them in popular culture. Particularly disturbing to many of the students was the view of lawyers’ ethics portrayed in some films and television shows. Their response was to use those very images to explain legal ethics to their friends. Some students even prepared legal ethics curricula, to be used in secondary schools, which incorporated film clips with a study of the rules of professional conduct.

More recently a colleague, Chris Corcos from the Louisiana State University Law School, and I were invited by the Louisiana Judicial College to teach a Continuing Legal Education program on legal ethics and professionalism to judges at all levels from that state. We used film clips of judges from a variety of movies to raise issues of legal ethics and professionalism. We asked the judges to critique the clips and to respond to each other. We also brought in actual ethics cases that addressed the same issues. The program was incredibly lively. The judges had strong opinions about each clip and were able to volunteer actual situations from their courts similar to the film clips we had viewed.

The highlight of the session for me was a clip from the film Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, in which an angry judge sternly tells the packed courthouse (and, by implication, the town outside its walls) that he will not allow mob law or lynch law to rule. Some of the judges thought the clip showed a good judge maintaining order in a professional way. Others argued that the judge should not have shown anger in making his point because it was unprofessional. One impassioned judge in our audience expressed disapproval of our choice of this film clip. He asked, with some emotion, “Why did you show us this clip in a program on professionalism?” Another judge jumped up and said, “So that we could have this discussion.” I was thrilled by this response. Clearly, the use of the film clips created an emotional power to which the judges responded. The honest interchange and debate made all of us really think about the issues of professionalism and ethics we were teaching.

In yet another setting, my law school class in criminal procedure, I used the facts from an episode of The Practice as the basis for a class. The powerful episode dealt with the murder of a nun, the discovery of her body, and the subsequent effort by the defendant to suppress the evidence as being the fruit of an illegal search. I hadn’t intended to discuss the episode, but when I came to class I heard students talking about it. I discovered that almost all the students had seen it and the facts could be quickly related to those who had not. The result was an animated class discussion that drew on just about every warrant exception we had studied. I asked various students to assume the roles of prosecutor and defense counsel, and they made excellent arguments against one another. The process helped them to better understand the material because it had come alive for them with the help of popular culture.

These are only a few examples. I have used films, television shows, short stories, novels, and even song lyrics to raise issues about how the public perceives lawyers, to encourage critical thinking about popular culture and the law, and to teach legal concepts to lawyers and non-lawyers alike. The results have been very positive, and I encourage others to incorporate popular culture materials into their own teaching. G



Books, law review articles, and web resources on law and popular culture topics are plentiful. A selection (by no means complete) of resources follows.


Bergman, Paul, and Michael Asimow. Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies. CITY: Andrews and McMeel Books, 1996.

Denver, John (editor). Legal Realism: Movies as Legal Texts. CITY: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Jarvis, Robert M. and Paul R Joseph (editors). Prime Time Law: Fictional Television as Legal Narrative. CITY: Carolina Academic Press, 1998.

Law Review Symposia and Articles

Several law review symposia have helped to increase interest in law and popular culture. Among these are:

Gunn, David L. (ed.). The Lawyer and Popular Culture: Proceedings of a Conference. CITY: Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1993.

A Symposium on Film and Law. 22 Oklahoma City U. L. Rev. (1997).


Symposia: Law and Popular Culture. 22 Legal Studies Forum (1998).

Symposium: Picturing Justice: Images of Law and Lawyers in the Visual Media. 30 U. S.F. L. Rev. (1996).

Symposium: Popular Legal Culture. 98 Yale L. J. (1989).

A non-exhaustive list of individually placed (not part of larger symposia) law review articles includes:

Chase, Anthony. Toward a Legal Theory of Popular Culture. Wis. L. Rev. 527 (1986).

Corcos, Christine Alice. Columbo Goes to Law Schools: Or, Some Thoughts on the Uses of Television in the Teaching of Law. 13 Loyola (L.A.) Ent. L. J. 499 (1993)

Effross, Walter A. High-Tech Heroes, Virtual Villains, and Jacked-In Justice: Visions of Law and Lawyers in Cyberpunk Science Fiction. 45 Buffalo L. Rev. 931 (1997).

Hubbard, F. Patrick. Justice, Creativity, and Popular Culture: The “Jurisprudence” of Mary Chapin Carpenter. 27 Pacific L. J. 1139 (1996).

Jarvis, Robert M. Legal Tales from Gilligan’s Island. 39 Santa Clara L. Rev. 185 (1998).

Joseph, Paul, and Sharon Carton. The Law of the Federation: Images of Law, Lawyers, and the Legal System in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” 24 U. Toledo L. Rev. 43 (1992).

Scharf, Michael P., and Lawrence D. Roberts. The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” 25 U. Toledo L. Rev. 577 (1993).

Stark, Steven D. Perry Mason Meets Sonny Crocket: The History of Lawyers and the Police as Television Heroes. 42 U. Miami L. Rev. 229 (1987).



Picturing Justice: www.usfca/edu/pjj

University of Texas Law Library:


Paul R Joseph is Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the Law Center of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL. A member of the American Bar Association, he has served on the Division for Public Education’s Standing Committee on Gavel Awards. Professor Joseph may be contacted by phone at 954/262-6171 or by e-mail at

Just Images II


In Just Images II, David Ray Papke, author of “Fictional Lawyers and Television Justice,” states: “Less than half of the American population has ever consulted a lawyer, and a still smaller portion has participated in or even seen a courtroom trial.” He concludes that for many Americans, television is a major source of information about the legal system.

The entertainment media and law—how do they mix? How do they affect our perception of the legal system and its operation? According to Dr. Horace Newcomb, curator of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, the depiction of the legal profession in television dramas is a representation. He emphasizes that fiction should never be confused with reality. At the same time, popular culture representations allow students to play “what if” with reality. For example, “what if” legal offices, as portrayed in Perry Mason episodes of the 1950s-1960s, served as detective agencies and always identified the real perpetrators of crime? “What if” the side that was right always won, attorneys were always responsible, and judges always judicious in their decisions?

Newcomb states, “Fiction is a marvelous form of discussion, fundamental and necessary to all cultures. With fiction we can question the shortcomings of our system. But more importantly, we can imagine a better world, a more just society. Legal programs on television are an area for those imagined alternatives.”

Although legal dramas of the past focused on the ideal, today’s legal dramas offer more insights into the workings of the legal system—compromise, negotiations, self-interest, maneuvering, and persistency are often the focus of law-related programs such as Law and Order and The Practice. The focus has changed from law and a legal system that always provides justice, to law and a legal system that is complicated and complex and can be manipulated.

The entertainment media provides a forum in which Americans with little experience in law and legal matters are exposed to such proceedings in legal dramas and comedies. The programs provide insights into our justice system, but they cannot reflect how the system, with all its variables, operates. They do, however, facilitate active and critical discussion and contemplation of the legal system and its impact on American society.


Source: David Ray Papke, “Fictional Lawyers and Television Justice” in Just Images II: Lawyers and the Courtroom on Prime-Time Television (Chicago: American Bar Association, 1996).

Copies of Just Images II are available free. Contact: American Bar Association, Division for Public Education, 541 N. Fairbanks Court, Chicago, IL 60611-3314, (312)988-5735.


Teaching Activities


1. View a television program—such as Law and Order, The Practice, Judging Amy, and Family Law—that features courtroom scenes. Identify the program watched and the type of case—criminal or civi#151;featured on the program. Provide a brief summary of the plot and analyze the procedures and arguments followed in the legal proceedings. For a criminal case: note the crime committed, the evidence in the case, and the arguments of the prosecution and the defense. Was plea bargaining offered and accepted? Was any evidence made unavailable to the jury? Why? What was the outcome of the case? Who won? Why? For a civil case: note the issue being contested and the facts, opinions, and strategies of the attorneys for the plaintiff and the defense. What was the outcome of the case? Who won? Why?

2. Compare and contrast television shows from different eras. Look for similarities and differences in investigative procedures, courtroom strategies, and trial outcomes. For example, watch reruns of law-related shows such as Perry Mason on Court TV or other stations. Compare and contrast this program with a more recent law-related drama. How are the roles of prosecutor and defense attorneys and staff depicted? Do you think today’s law-related programs are more or less realistic? How do the portrayals affect our view of the legal system and lawyers?

3. Find out about the roles played by attorneys outside the courtroom. One way to do this is by attending a city or town council meeting or a zoning board meeting. You could also contact a local attorney and ask for an opportunity to discuss his or her professional responsibilities and activities. Lawyers often serve as advisers to governmental bodies. Find out who your municipal attorney is and what role he or she plays in the government. Is the attorney involved in negotiations for the local government? Does the attorney write the local ordinances that are approved by the elected officials? Does the attorney attend meetings as an adviser? Does learning about other roles attorneys play affect the way you perceive them? Why or why not?

4. Rent a video that focuses on a law proceeding and analyze the impact of the case on those involved and their families. One good choice would be either the 1948 or 1999 production of The Winslow Boy. How does the movie examine the issues of fairness and justice? What rights of children are considered in the case? How does the case affect the plaintiff’s family? Although this drama, based on a real court case, examines the rights of a British boy expelled from school, it provides an excellent opportunity to discuss children’s rights in the United States. With the video serving as a springboard, relate it to children’s rights by discussing such Supreme Court cases as Tinker v. the School Board of Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), and In re Gault., 387 U.S. 1 (1967). Readers can get more information at the official Supreme Court website at Cornell University:

5. Prepare a mock trial for literary characters. Literature often features plots that contain matters of justice or courtroom scenes. Even fairy tales or nursery rhymes can be used as springboards for mock trials. For example, should Goldilocks be tried for trespassing in the Three Bears’ home and destroying their possessions? Should Jack from the story Jack and the Beanstalk be tried for stealing the giant’s golden goose? What would the outcome of a trial of these characters be? How could they defend themselves? What might the prosecution argue? Ask for the help of a police officer, lawyer, or judge in identifying laws that the characters may have broken. Write a brief courtroom scene in which the characters are tried for the alleged offenses and stage your mock trial. Allow a jury to decide the guilt or innocence of the characters. See the activity “Yertle on Tria#148; by Gayle Mertz for an example of character development and methods for conducting a mock trial.





Literature—both fiction and non-fiction—offers insights into the relationship of law and American culture. Recommended for students:


Grisham, John. The Brethren. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Grisham, John. The Rainmaker. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Lippincott, 1960.

Martini, Steve. The Judge. New York: Putnam’s Sons, DATE.

Turow, Scott. Pleading Guilty. New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux,1993.



Haas, Carol. Engel vs. Vitale: Separation of Church and State. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 1994

Kronenweter, Michael. Under 18: Knowing Your Rights. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 1993.

Rappaport, Doreen. Tinker vs. Des Moines: Student Rights on Trial. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.



The courtroom scenes or legal premises for these films can serve as springboards for discussing the relationship between law and popular culture in different times and places in American history.


Absence of Malice. 1981, PG (118 minutes)

Amistad. 1997, R (152 minutes)

A Few Good Men. 1992, R (138 minutes)

Inherit the Wind. 1960, not rated (127 minutes)

Liar Liar. 1997, PG-13 (87 minutes)

Miracle on 34th Street. 1947, not rated (96 minutes)

The Pelican Brief. 1993, PG-13 (141 minutes)

The Rainmaker. 1997, PG-13 (135 minutes)

To Kill a Mockingbird. 1962, not rated (129 minutes)

Trial and Error. 1997, PG-13 (106 minutes)

Twelve Angry Men. 1959, not rated (95 minutes)

The Winslow Boy. 1948, not rated (117 minutes); 1999, not rated.


Yertle on Trial


Gayle Mertz

Most students are familiar with Dr. Seuss’s book Yertle the Turtle. Yertle is the dictatorial and oppressive king of a pond. He decides that his kingdom is too small, and demands that the other turtles stand on each other’s backs to build an ever higher throne for the Mighty Yertle. Then Yertle’s reign upon the throne is toppled by the simple, innocent act of the turtle at the bottom of the stack.

This entertaining mock trial builds on Seuss’s original story by adding a new angle. It focuses on the personal plight of one character unidentified in the story—the turtle in the middle of the stack, Sadie. A quiet and well-behaved youth, Sadie was taught to listen to her elders, not to disagree with them, and to obey them. Sadie was frightened when she was asked to climb up to the top of the pile of turtles, and even more frightened when other turtles began to climb onto her. But she obeyed. She didn’t say a word.

After the great stack of turtles collapsed, Sadie had a terrible shell ache. The pain persisted for several weeks, so her mother took her to the local reptile doctor for an examination. The doctor said that Sadie’s shell had a thin crack that might never heal properly.

Sadie’s mother decided to sue the Mighty Yertle for enough money to take care of Sadie’s medical expenses. She also wanted to make sure that Yertle did not abuse other turtles again. Sadie’s mother thought that not even a king had the right to ask turtles to risk injury just to satisfy his need to be even greater.



Attorney(s) for the Plaintiff

Your responsibility is to represent Sadie. You will explain to the jury that Yertle abused his authority and that Sadie was injured as a result of his action. You may also argue that it is important to teach Yertle that even a king may not order other turtles around without good reason.


Witnesses for the Plaintiff

Mack. You were the turtle at the bottom of the stack. You may testify that Yertle did not listen to you even when you did complain to him. You, too, have had shell problems since that dreadful day in the pond. You believe that Yertle should be held responsible for Sadie’s misfortune.

George Snapper. You are an elected member of the Turtle Council. You have a responsibility to make sure that all are treated fairly. You believe that King Yertle ignores the rights and needs of others.

Yolanda. You are Yertle’s assistant, and you enjoy most of the work you do. You are afraid that Yertle will fire you if you support Sadie. Yet, you feel that Sadie’s rights have been violated, and you must speak up for her.

Dr. Lyn Lizard. You are a physician who specializes in the treatment of reptiles. You have been Sadie’s doctor since the day she was hatched and know that she has always been healthy. After her fall, you examined her and determined that her shell had a thin crack. You have treated similar cracks and know that they may cause pain and suffering for many years. You also know that Sadie will need special care. She will not be able to go to school or play with other turtles for a long time.

Sadie. You are very sad and worried about the future. You think that Yertle, even if he is a king, did not behave properly and should be held responsible for his actions.

Slither. You are Sadie’s mother. You believe that Yertle did not use good judgment when he asked a young turtle to climb onto the stack. You also feel it was selfish of him to order other turtles to do something so dangerous. You want the jury to order Yertle to pay for all Sadie’s expenses and never to take advantage of other turtles again.


Attorney(s) for the Defense

Your responsibility is to defend Yertle. You argue that Yertle, as the king, has a right to order his subjects to do whatever he thinks is necessary. He thought it was necessary to see what was beyond his pond and pressed other turtles into service to help him. They were hurt in the line of duty, so he wasn’t personally liable for Sadie’s injury. He did not realize how young she was, or he wouldn’t have ordered her to join the stack of turtles.


Witnesses for the Defense

Mertle. You are Yertle’s sister, and you believe that Yertle has an absolute right to tell other turtles what to do. You may argue that royalty may not be sued because they have complete authority.

Dr. Sam. You are the royal physician, and a turtle yourself. You are an expert in turtle health, including the resistance, durability, and recuperative powers of the turtle shell. You want the jury to know that Dr. Lyn is nothing but a thin-skinned lizard who is hardly qualified to treat turtles, much less testify on their behalf. You may tell the jury that Sadie’s injuries are not serious, and you are sure that, while she is quite shaken, she will be much better very soon.

Yertle. You are insulted that members of your kingdom would even think that they have a right to question your judgment or to sue you. Subjects may not sue a king. You do not think that the court, or members of the jury, have the authority to tell you what to do.

Hector. You are an old turtle who remembers what the kingdom was like a long time ago. In the old days, the people always did what the king told them to do, and they led happy and healthy lives. That is why you have lived so long yourself.

Frank Flycatcher. You are Yertle’s best friend. You believe that he really cares about the people in his kingdom, but he sometimes does foolish things. The jurors should understand that a king’s life is difficult, and they should not create more problems for poor Yertle. Or for themselves. Any money paid to Sadie will come from taxes they pay to the national treasury.


A Note to Jurors

Your job is to listen very carefully to what the witnesses say. Determine whether they are telling the truth, whether what they say is important to the case, and whether they are accurate when they testify. Compare the testimony of the witnesses. Do the facts fit together? Was one side more reasonable than the other? Are you persuaded that a king may be held responsible for his actions? Do you think that this king should be in this situation? Your verdict must be unanimous. If you decide that the king is responsible for Sadie’s injury, you must determine how he will compensate her.


How to Conduct Your Mock Trial

Each attorney may make an opening statement. This is the attorney’s opportunity to tell the jury a little about the case and what he or she intends to prove.

After opening statements, each attorney may call witnesses. In this mock trial, each witness may be questioned for a maximum of three minutes. The attorney for the plaintiff is always allowed to present her or his case first.

The attorney for the other side may cross-examine each witness for two minutes. The attorney may ask questions only about information that the witness has already talked about.

Following witness testimony, each attorney delivers a closing argument to summarize the case. The attorney tells the jury why they should agree with his or her client’s position.

The jurors review and discuss the case privately. When they all agree on a verdict, they tell the judge what they have decided.


Source: Adapted from Gayle Mertz, “Yertle on Trial,” Update on the Courts 4.2 (Winter 1996): 14-15.


Gayle Mertz is the Director of the Law-Related Education Network in Boulder, Colo. She serves on the ABA Division for Public Education’s Update on Law-Related Education Editorial Advisory Board.