Legal Storytellling & Pedagogy

Observations for Teaching from Editorial Reviews

“I particularly appreciate the format as it opens exciting teaching opportunities.  Professors can first draw on the narratives to encourage discussion and debate on issues like whether the actions described within the narrative are discriminatory…. This book encourages readers to identify with the characters as real people, not legal cases, and to consider what if anything can and should be done.”  Alison Carey, H-Net Reviews

“The book is idea for undergraduate classes that cover workplace discrimination.  The narratives will engage students and the commentary will challenge them to think about what discrimination means and why current laws fail on so many levels. “ Work and Occupations

How Storytelling Works as a Pedagogical Tool

O’Brien, who edited and wrote the legal commentary for Voices from the Edge: Narratives about the Americans with Disabilities Act (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), and wrote the introduction for and edited Telling Stories Out of Court: Narratives about Women and Workplace Discrimination (ILR, Cornell University Press, 2008), with Risa Lieberwitz of Cornell University writing the legal commentary carrying the concept entirely into the realm of fiction.

The key concept behind legal and political storytelling is “writing politics,” or writing for public purpose. That is, these two  books capture the essence of a legal conflict and dramatize it in “real life.” In other words, they are meant to be “political” (read normative) in the broadest sense of the word. The “drama in real life,” however, is entirely fiction, not creative non-fiction, as will be explained below.

O’Brien realized the political nature of the legal storytelling project when she received fan mail after Voices from the Edge and Telling Stories Out of Court were published. She heard this consistently from audiences at readings as well. Readers and members of the audience repeatedly told the editor that these books “spoke” to them, and the sharing aspect of the stories had them relaying their own experiences of being embroiled in civil-rights conflicts in their everyday lives.

O’Brien found out what was distinctive or “political” about Voices from the Edge during a discussion in 2006 with Jim Phelan, the editor of the journal Narrative and of a book series of the same title. He told O’Brien that it was the editor’s act of commissioning the stories on “spec,” in combination with the contemporary aspect of the legal commentary in Voices from the Edge, that constituted “performing politics.”

Because the legal commentary is separated from the fiction, the books are scholarly, and therefore work well in an undergraduate classroom audience. While the commentary is written in an accessible way, targeting the undergraduate reader, it is scholarly in that these chapters provide an overall survey of how the federal and state courts have interpreted a statute or a body of law. The commentary makes a general argument about what direction the law took, whether it is the ADA, the Civil Rights Act, or the complex body of state and federal statutes that compose family law or the international EU law. Providing such an overview helps undergraduates understand common-law interpretations of federal statutes.

Unlike other forms of legal narration, political and legal storytelling books rely on fiction to immerse the reader in stories that present both the narrative and the complex emotions of people facing law and the abstract concepts such as federalism that underlie them. Yet the stories themselves do not explicitly present the characters’ experiences as legal issues. Instead legal commentary provides a thorough explanation of the legal background underlying the characters’ experience. Analyzing the fiction through a legal lens, they discuss not the critical merit of the short stories as fiction, but rather, how the characters’ experiences reflect judicial precedents interpreting the federal and state statutes involved.