Bonding Over Books: Students and professors step outside the classroom to discuss legal issues depicted in books and movies

Illustration Credit: Christopher Thorntock

On a Monday evening in March, a group of students sat around the dining room table of Professor Daniel Shaviro’s West Village apartment. They ate pizza, drank beer, and talked as Buddy and Seymour, two of Shaviro’s cats, darted underneath the table and at one point even made a play for a slice. The subject of the conversation? Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and his views of progressive taxation.

This was the final session of Shaviro’s 1L Reading Group, one of 39 such groups that are part of a new non-credit program at the Law School. Designed to give students an opportunity to learn from professors in an environment free from grades and stress, the optional groups are based on shared reading of books or viewing of films and television shows. Norma Z. Paige Professor of Law Jennifer Arlen '86 leads a group on corporate crime and fraud that looks at books such as James Stewart’s The Tangled Web and Den of Thieves. Frank UphamWilf Family Professor of Property Law, leads another group called Cowboys, Gauchos, and Samurai that considers legal issues that arise in classic films of each genre.

Each group meets two or three times per semester, often in the homes of the professors who lead them. “It was a nice way to get to know a little bit about Dean Morrison’s interests in literature, and really engage in pretty free-ranging conversations about the law and books,” says Russell Rennie ’17 of Dean Trevor Morrison’s group, Law and Lawyers in Literature. The group operates “like an informal book club with the dean,” says Rennie, with reading material that covered fictional legal clashes through the centuries, from a sister's defiance of the law in order to give her slain brother a proper burial in Sophocles’ Antigone to Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Rennie, who studied English as an undergraduate, says that he chose this particular study group as a way to make sure he would carve out time for reading novels, even as law books began to take priority in his 1L schedule. He particularly enjoyed the discussion about A Man for All Seasons, a play about the historical events leading to the beheading of Sir Thomas More. “It was just a really interesting discussion about the role of conscience in being a lawyer.”

“It was a total blast for me, it was really fun,” says Professor Jeanne Fromer of her Silicon Valley reading group, which looked at intellectual property issues in the first season of the HBO series. “It was very different from the usual classes I do, including seminars. The students were coming to the material from first instincts, just thinking through things without being influenced by readings of what scholars have said and different cases in the area, and so it just felt like a very fresh discussion.”

In one session of Fromer’s group, students gathered to watch two episodes of the show. In addition to getting a good laugh at the show’s jokes—more off-color than the sort that might normally be voiced in a law classroom—the students also participated in a vigorous discussion of the legal issues surrounding the protection of trade secrets.  “It was really interesting to kind of hang out with a professor outside an academic context,” says Jeffrey Mudd ’17, one of the students in Fromer’s group. “Seeing the level of passion that Professor Fromer had about not only the show, which was hilarious, but her area of study—she really loves this stuff.”

Posted June 15, 2015

Illustration Credit: Christopher Thornock