LAW4538 - Lawyers, literature and cinema - 2017

6 points, SCA Band 3, 0.125 EFTSL

Undergraduate - Unit

Refer to the specific census and withdrawal dates for the semester(s) in which this unit is offered.




Dr Eric Wilson

Not offered in 2017


The representation of Law and lawyers within popular culture is one of the most important, but underappreciated, dimensions of the legal profession, of practice, and of the practical negotiation of legal ethics. The 'social status' of the lawyer within the wider culture is one of the dominant factors governing the student's decision to enter (or not to enter) law school. Furthermore, the dissemination of judicial procedure and dispute resolution through popular culture and the mass media is one of the primary means of both enforcing and challenging the legitimacy of Law and its practitioners within the broader community.

Within the diverse representations of Law offered by popular culture both literature and cinema are of special significance. Literature, both 'elitist' (Kafka; Camus) and 'popular' (Thurow; Grisham) is one of the primary mediums for the critical examination of legal reasoning and the nature and ethics of practice within the wider culture, often revealing subversive and confronting truths normally suppressed by conventional legal education and training. Cinema, along with television, is one of the leading arenas for the formulation of the social consensus concerning the nature of Law and lawyers, often artistically re-staging the processes of legal reasoning and dispute resolution so as to both critique and affirm the legitimacy of legal culture.

This unit will examine all of these issues through a critical analysis and discussion of a number of the seminal 'texts' within both the literature and cinema of Law.


This unit will explore the academic subject of 'Law and Popular Culture' by utilizing some of the classic literary and cinematic 'texts' that treat with the Law, lawyers, legal practice, and legal reasoning. A student successfully completing this unit should be expected to demonstrate proficiency in discussing the following four issues that will be covered by this course.

  1. Employing an inter-disciplinary approach grounded primarily, but not exclusively, upon cultural studies and critical theory, the unit will examine the representation of law and lawyers within popular culture, primarily through their respective depictions in the 'mass media' form of both literature (popular and elitist) and cinema. An additional objective is to introduce students to the branch of critical legal studies known as 'law and literature', which can be broken down into three components:
    1. the ideology of law and legal practice as a means of both legitimizing and critiquing contemporary legal culture
    2. the discursive nature of representations of law and lawyers within the wider community that govern the social perceptions of legal practice and dispute resolution
    3. the social function of the cultural representation of law, which operates to reconcile the community to orthodox legal practice through the creation and circulation of a set of stereotypes and collective expectations concerning legal standards and outcomes.
  2. The primary sources of literature and cinema will be used as an alternative, or 'non-academic', means for a critical and reflective consideration of outstanding issues in more formally academic domains of legal scholarship, including legal ethics and the philosophy of law. The study of the literary and cinematic treatment of classic problems of jurisprudence, including the nature of the rule of law, the social contract, sovereignty, due process, and natural justice, will reveal the extent to which formal legal theory serves as an expression of wider patterns of cultural and aesthetic forms of reasoning.
  3. Employing both academic (secondary) and non-academic (primary) texts, the unit will consider a number of important facets of critical legal scholarship, most importantly the 'law and literature' movement, which tries to both explain and critique law in terms of the various literary techniques of dramatic narrative. This unit largely operates within the 'law and literature' tradition by directly engaging with novels and films, both of which are highly narrative-driven artistic forms. The text's depiction and resolution of the legal issue under its consideration will be discussed in class as a parallel, or secondary, commentary on the centrality of narrative to all forms of legal speech and practice.
  4. The unit will offer a wider and more sophisticated understanding of the nature and value of inter-disciplinary approaches, such as cultural studies, to the development of legal scholarship than is offered in traditional 'black letter' law courses.


Two reflective essays (1000 words each; 20% each) and one extended essay (3000 words; 60%). The topics for all three assignments will be assigned by the instructor. Class attendance and participation is mandatory.

Workload requirements

Minimum total expected workload to achieve the learning outcomes for this unit is 144 hours per semester typically comprising a mixture of scheduled learning activities and independent study. The unit requires on average three/four hours of scheduled activities per week. Scheduled activities may include a combination of teacher directed learning, peer directed learning and online engagement.

See also Unit timetable information

Chief examiner(s)