Legal Citation and Pop Culture

By: Jan M. Levine, Professor of Law and Director, Legal Research & Writing Program, Duquesne University School of Law

Every academic year, legal writing professors grapple with the problem of how to best teach citation to 1L students.  Although several print- and computer-based sources of exercises are available for students, regardless of the citation guide the school requires (such as the ALWD Guide and the Bluebook), many professors develop their own exercises to expose their students to the myriad complexities of citation.  Experienced teachers know that the most enduring lessons on citation come from students preparing actual documents, such as office memoranda and appellate briefs, because students understand the issues and analysis being explored and have read the sources to be cited.  However, stand-alone exercises are helpful for introducing basic concepts of citation and explaining the more technical aspects of citation, such as full citations, short citations, signals, citation relationship to text, abbreviations, and parentheticals.  To be successful, stand-alone exercises need to have some “hook” that engages students in the otherwise dry topic of citation.

In an effort to make stand-alone citation exercises more enjoyable and realistic I have for many years created exercises based on aspects of media and pop culture that are familiar to me and to my students. I couple them with PowerPoint presentations that include associated visuals and music.  As a long-time science fiction and fantasy fan, in the past I used Star Trek and Lord of the Rings in my exercises. My latest citation exercises are based on case law and other sources that cite to the omnipresent Star Wars franchise and the DC and Marvel comic books, movies, and television shows.

There are many reported appellate opinions and trial court decisions arising from litigation surrounding the business and intellectual property aspects of these books, films, and television shows. Many judges and scholars embellish their own writing with concepts and quotations from, and metaphors and allusions to, the characters found in these aspects of pop culture.  Examples include an opinion by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan referring to Spider-Man and his late Uncle Ben. Other judges’ opinions compare Star Wars to Star Trek, quote Yoda, and employ metaphors about the Dark Side of the Force.  Business litigation ranges from disputes over George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch to copyright infringement based on sales of action figures and fights over the legal rights to Superman and other comic book characters.  Scholarly articles address characters such as Daredevil (a blind attorney in Manhattan by day and a crimefighter by night).

In my first-year legal writing course, I assign the exercises to teams of three students, so they collaborate in their exploration of the strange and unfamiliar world of citation.  The exercises range from simple to complex citations, and some offer multiple options for “correct” answers and textual revisions.  I do not grade the exercises because my goal is to have the students start the long process of learning how to use the citation manual in ways that provide a foundation for preparing correct citations for the separate research reports and office memoranda they are working on at the same time.  After each class period spent reviewing the exercises and answers, I post the PowerPoint presentations with answers on my section’s course website.  The PowerPoint presentations begin with images and music from the media.  The answers are replete with pictures of the actual items, persons, and media characters in the cited sources, including a video with President Barack Obama conflating Star Wars and Star Trek and ending with references to upcoming movies and television shows.

For many years, I have made my exercises available to other professors of legal writing.  The current exercises and answer keys are based on the ALWD Guide but can easily be adapted for users of the Bluebook because the resulting citations are identical.  Legal writing professors who would like to examine or use the materials should email me at [email protected] from your law school address. I can reply with a link to the Dropbox folder containing my exercises, answer keys, and PowerPoint presentations.

To learn more about teaching law with pop culture, check out The Media Method: Teaching Law with Popular Culture.

The Media Method

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