Courtroom Drama: Professor Uses Theater to Help Teach Law Students

 

What do you get when you combine a classroom, courtroom, and theater stage?

Associate Professor Joy Radice’s criminal law class.

Actor Erik Schiller, left, portrays the client during a meeting with Robert Wheeler and Colleen Schuetz, both third-year law students, during recent advocacy clinic training.

Radice, who came to UT in 2012, is using a new approach to teach criminal law. Last year, she recruited actors from UT’s Department of Theatre to make a criminal case—the fictitious State v. Jones—come to life for her first-year students. They got to see what it’s like to interview and assess the statements of a defendant (Calvin Jones, charged with burglary) and prosecution witness (police officer George Hitchens), apply those facts to Tennessee cases, and then negotiate with opposing counsel to try to resolve the case.

Although actors have been used in some upper-level law courses, Radice’s interactive, experiential approach was new for first-year students. The actors were so effective that she’s been using them this summer for a “boot camp” that is preparing student lawyers for representing actual clients in the advocacy clinic, a course she co-teaches.

“My hope in using the actors was that students would get a real feel for what it’s like to be a lawyer and, more importantly, how they can learn on their own through experience and reflection,” Radice said. “I want students to see that they are their own teachers. The combination of self-awareness, legal knowledge, and lawyering skills is what will make them excellent lawyers.”

Radice’s pilot project was funded by a Creative Teaching Grant from UT’s Teaching and Learning Center. Radice is now evaluating exam scores and other data to see if the courtroom drama was successful in helping her students understand the law. She hopes to discuss the results in a legal journal or peer-reviewed education journal.

College of Law Dean Douglas Blaze said he expects Radice’s experiment will prompt other law instructors to try innovative teaching techniques, including using actors in the classroom.

“Our goal is to connect theory with practice, to help our students understand how the law actually works. Professor Radice’s innovative use of experiential learning methods in the first year does just that,” Blaze said. “She has helped lead a discussion at the law school about how we might expand those methods across the first-year curriculum.”

Radice’s students loved the unique approaching to learning criminal law.

“I learned everything from how to ask clients both broad and narrow questions to understand the full picture, to the importance of getting testimony from several different resources, to how critical it is to take detailed notes while listening at the same time,” said student Casey Duhart.

Rachel Dix said that the simulation had a positive impact on her legal education because it gave her confidence in herself as a lawyer.

“As a first-year law student, it’s easy to discredit your own knowledge or ability because you’re brand-new to the field,” Dix said. “Participating in the simulation gave me confidence in my own capabilities and taught me to trust my own legal knowledge.”

C O N T A C T:

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

Joy Radice (347-617-6555, jradice@utk.edu)

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