Civil Action

Our focal text is Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, a riveting, non-fiction account of lawyers embroiled in a prolific legal battle over water contamination that allegedly caused a childhood leukemia cluster. This prize-winning book returns us to many of our core questions about narrative and values in the legal system.

In particular, how and why do we construct narratives in law? How should we evaluate legal narratives? Are they true? Useful? Destructive to the aims of law?

How compatible is storytelling with our legal system’s attempt to find truth and to afford litigants fair opportunities for justice?

We also seek to understand how stories shape the perception of lawyers as individual moral agents. At the center of the story is attorney Jan Schlichtmann, a charismatic, confident storyteller. What story did he tell himself and others about the case? Was it true? How did that story change over the course of the long legal struggle? What did the judge think of the story? How did the judge change the story Schlichtmann sought to tell in court? How did the rules of evidence and procedure constrain storytelling for good and bad?

As we answer these questions, we’ll study style and rhetoric in presenting stories and arguments. Here we’ll have occasion again to talk about what makes for good narrative, argument and writing, including the use of fiction writer’s techniques for plotting, characterization and description, among other devices. We segue to Hollywood screenwriting advice on the art of storytelling in the modern era.

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