Q&A with Professor Julia Glencer: Law, Literature, and the Media

Image of Julia GlencerJuris Magazine’s Nicole Prieto and Karissa Murphy sat down with Julia M. Glencer, Assistant Professor of Clinical Legal Skills, in April 2018 to delve into some of her background, experiences, and observations with law, literature, and the media. Professor Glencer teaches Legal Research and Writing, Advanced Legal Writing: Law Firm Simulation, and Advanced Legal Writing: Law as a Literary Profession.

 Note: Some portions of the following interview have been edited or omitted for clarity.


Nicole Prieto: Could you first talk a bit about your path from graduating with an English degree at Carlow College to getting your law degree at Dickinson School of Law?

Professor Julia Glencer: When I was an English major in Carlow College, I hadn’t really given any thought as to what I would do after college. . . . I did my third year abroad in Ireland. I went to Trinity College, and I took a political philosophy class. And I had to read things that were so much more practical than what I had ever read before. But they were also quite old. I was reading things like Reflections on the French Revolution — I mean, 200- to 300-year-old ideas on politics and law. I had never done any reading like that before. I was absolutely fascinated by it.

So, when I came back to Carlow, I mentioned that to my philosophy teacher — and I had taken a number of classes with him, but those were your traditional philosophy classes; they weren’t political philosophy in any way. So, we talked about that for a little while. And I went on my merry way and continued to take all of my English Literature courses, and he asked me at one point, “Have you ever considered law school?” and I said, “Absolutely not.” That never even crossed my mind. There are no lawyers in my family; I’m from a blue-collar family, so a professional degree was nothing any of us had ever thought about. But he planted a seed that I couldn’t forget about.

A lot of my other professors were suggesting to me that going to grad school for English would be something I’d be very, very good at but probably would have a hard time translating into a long-term job that would pay off all of my student loans. So, I started really thinking a little bit more seriously about law school. I took a year off after college to try to find a job to use my English degree. I was not really successful doing that. I had a couple of research jobs, but they weren’t paying very well. And I decided to apply to law school. I figured I had nothing to lose.

My family thought I was crazy. The Dickinson School of Law was the first school that accepted me, and I was thrilled. And I have never, ever regretted that decision — either to go to law school or to go to the Dickinson School of Law, because I absolutely loved it. So, I fell into law, that is the only way to put it, with my English degree. Not having any idea whether that would translate to law school or not. . . . I will say within two weeks, I knew that it was going to translate very, very well because . . . not only was [the study of law] language-based, but I was seeing the same types of thoughts that I had read in the political philosophy books in action. And I loved it.


NP: What was your path toward becoming a Legal Research and Writing professor?

JG: I would say within the first six months of law school, I was looking at my professors [thinking], “I want to do this for the rest of my life,” but . . . I really didn’t know if that was attainable in any way. I think the thing that put me on the path toward teaching was getting a federal judicial clerkship after law school. I had talked to some professors at Dickinson who suggested that if I ever wanted to teach, that would be a very good thing for me to pursue. I did very well in law school, so the dean of the law school was suggesting that a judicial clerkship was something [the school would support me in pursuing]. So I interviewed [with a number] of judges, and I [accepted a position] with Judge Weis on the [United States Court of Appeals for the] Third Circuit here in Pittsburgh.


NP: Was there anything as an English major that has helped you in your legal profession that you didn’t necessarily learn in law school?

JG: My law school was not particularly upfront about discussing the benefits of narrative storytelling. That’s really changed. That’s become a movement within the legal profession I’d say in the last 10 to 15 years. A lot of professors are very interested in that now in the legal writing world and also in the clinical world. And I think there’s a much better understanding about how humans think in terms of stories and how beneficial it can be if you are not only a good writer, but also a good storyteller who can tap into that. We never talked about anything like that law school.


NP: What inspired you to create the Law as a Literary Profession course?

JG: Many things. However, the primary mover was the fact that I was realizing that my [LRW] students didn’t read. It was frightening me to realize that many of my first-year students simply didn’t read novels and books. [Apparently many of them had not read much growing up and did not value reading outside of the readings assigned in school.] They didn’t realize that it would teach them not only about language but also about human interactions. [Early on,] I had a very brave Research Assistant who basically told me he didn’t read novels.

So, I became a book fairy. I would leave books in [students’] mailboxes — when we had the mailboxes [in the lounge] that you could just slip [books] into — and they would all laugh, but they would go and read the books. And I was pretty good at picking books that I thought they would like. And I hooked a couple of them on reading, and I thought, “Well, if I can do this institutionally and help more people, that would probably be a really good idea.” [Creating] that class was a way to combine my two passions.


NP: At least in the last couple of years that you’ve taught it, what have you had your students do or how have you adjusted how you’ve taught your course?

JG: That’s an interesting question! The course basically has two units. We read some novels that have been recognized as having a tie between law and literature for the first half of the class. In the second half of the class, I try to take some of those same ideas and translate them into the actual legal work of lawyers and judges on a daily basis. So, we start [by] looking at how understanding law and literature concepts can help lawyers use story structures to tell their stories and [write] briefs; how judges use story structures to organize opinions; how judges use metaphors and things that we tend to think about when we study literature and poetry; and how those things can help them make their persuasive points and simply see into the future when they’re thinking about the ramifications of case law.

I picked the books the first time I taught the class, and some of them went well and some of them didn’t. So, every year, I engage in the process of figuring out whether or not I’m going to change some of the underlying books. And that’s fascinating because I only have a semester; I’m forced to make decisions about what we’ll read. Some go well, and some don’t.

I can give you a very specific example — well, I can give you two! So, we read Inherit the Wind, the Scopes Monkey Trial play, and the students hated it. I love that book! The book makes me cry every time I read it. I was stunned that the students didn’t like it at all. But OK, you know, times change, tastes change. For three years, two years in which I taught that class, we have read The Sweet Hereafter. Students liked it. This past year, they disliked it. They thought it was overdone, too obvious. It was too dramatic — too obviously dramatic — and they didn’t care for it one bit. That’s one I don’t know that I’ll switch. I don’t know whether that was just that particular class.


NP: Have you ever taught like English courses or anything like that before?

JG: No, I have done some volunteer work teaching older students to read. I’ve done that, but that’s the only other thing that’s either remotely connected to teaching in English. Not opposed to it! Just ended up here first.


NP: For the course, have you only examined literary texts associated with the legal profession or have you looked toward other types of texts?

JG: Some of the texts do double duty. I mean, The Merchant of Venice is a really good example; that’s a widely read play in law and literature courses. Of course, it’s also read in your basic undergrad courses as well. A lot of law and literature courses [include excerpts from] the Bible. I haven’t done that only because I’m forced to make choices, but one of these days, I may try that and see how that goes. In addition, we also read Billy Budd, which I understand a lot of undergraduate courses read. Professor Levine thought I was crazy for [assigning] Billy Budd; [he warned me that some students despite that novella.]

I love that story; I think it’s gone fairly well in Law and Literature, although the students tell me that it is a novella that is 60 pages long that could’ve been written in six. And of course, as a legal writing professor, I have to realize that there’s truth to that. Everything can always be condensed.


NP: What do you hope your students take away from the course, generally?

JG: Probably more than anything else, a love of lifelong learning, which I think deep reading fosters. . . . And I always tell the students in that class, as long as they read, I’m not really all that concerned about what they read, although I would like to help them make some good choices by introducing them to some better literature. “Literature,” of course, being a very subjective term, which is something I talk to them about at the beginning of the class because I’m not there to impose my will on them; I just want to introduce them to some things that I think they’ll like, and I hope it sparks an interest in reading about the legal profession in a literary setting forever.


NP: What is the word “literature” to you? How have you come to define it?

JG: That’s a tough question! . . . That is a highly subjective term. When I was an English major, I was a snob about what I was reading because that just kind of comes with the territory. I’ve lightened up on that. Now I read what I want to read, and I try to get something valuable out of absolutely everything I read. . . . So, usually I tell the students in that class that literature is something they’re going to have to define for themselves through a lifetime of reading. And I want to give them practice and skills to use to assess what they’re reading.


Karissa Murphy: As a legal scholar, why do you think it’s important to explore the subject of law as a literary profession?

JG: There are many “law and” courses. You can look at law through the lens of all sorts of other disciplines. For me personally, this was the one that made the most sense given my background and also the fact that I’ve been a voracious reader since I was young. So, I feel as though I’ve learned so much about my understanding of human interaction and human history through the reading that I’ve done. . . . So, to me, it was something that I knew could take existing lawyers’ skill sets and expand them in ways that I thought would be valuable for them as they seek to become . . . well-rounded [people] who can interact with their clients in a one-on-one humanistic way.


KM: You just kind of touched on this: How do you think literature can inform our professional lives?

JG: On a very practical plane, by giving you practice with interpretation, vocabulary, good writing, being persuaded by somebody else’s writing, and showing you ways to organize your thoughts — and make your thoughts tangible by using stories and examples and things of that nature. I also think, though — and I believe this just as a humanistic professor — that literature can expand your thought process, make you a more well-rounded person, make you a more accepting and understanding human being, which I think has many values when you think about the fact that lawyers are human counselors.


KM: How did your background in English and literature inform your role as a judicial law clerk?

JG: Well, I think it was something that my judge was particularly interested in seeing in my background because I think he thought that it would translate well into . . . a profession [where], on a daily basis, you basically sit in your office and read and write. . . . I think he thought that for a young person, reading is probably something that gives you more life experiences than you could otherwise get at a young age.


KM: Did you ever find yourself drawing on those skills more so than your legal training during that time?

JG: I wouldn’t say “more so,” but I think that because I had been a literature and a writing major in school, I had so much more experience already capturing my thoughts and writing, and I think that just made the entire job that much easier — because the underlying organization and the ability to make fact patterns vivid on the page was something I already knew how to do. And I think a lot of law students leave law school still struggling with all of those skills. I had an awful lot of learning yet to do in the law. But [my writing] skills were already set, that it gave me a leg up in that sense.


KM: How do you think media portrayals, whether fiction or nonfiction, affect law students or lawyers?

JG: There’s actually been a good deal of research done on that very thing, especially vis-à-vis law students and whether or not those media portrayals set up a very unrealistic image of lawyering, and whether it draws students to law school. Then, they either find confirmation of what they thought they were going to be doing, or it’s the polar opposite of what they [thought they] were going to be doing.

So, I do think all of those media portrayals set up stereotypes that then have to be dispelled. Of course, some of them have a basis in reality, too. . . . But one of the things we talk about on the very first day of class in [my Law and Literature course] is if you were going to film a realistic show about being a lawyer, what would that actually look like? Probably a lot of reading and [drinking] coffee.

KM: Right!

JG: And pretty boring, when you think about it! For a lot of what we do on a daily basis.

NP: You don’t really see media portrayals of transactional lawyers. [Laughter]

JG: And so, we laugh about what that would actually be like!


KM: I remember I think on our first day, they referred us to Paper Chase. And I had never seen that movie, so I went home and watched it, and then I was scared to death. I was like, “Oh my gosh! If this is what law school’s like, I don’t think it’s for me.” But yeah, you’re right; it’s the complete opposite of that.

So, what do you think is the impact of media portrayals of lawyers or law students on the lay public? For instance, a lot of us remember seeing reports on how attorneys helped stranded immigrants at JFK Airport, which seemed to inspire some people to go to law school. What are your thoughts on that?

JG: I think there’s been a movement in the last 10 years for lawyers to reach out from within the Law and Literature movement to correct some of those portrayals in ways that you’re now suggesting are occurring — and inspiring people to realize that this profession can really help people on that type of one-on-one basis. I think it would be interesting to poll the current student body to see if they had seen those kinds of portrayals.

When I went to law school in 1994, everybody was there because of L.A. Law, right? . . . They wanted to be in-the-court-room trial attorneys making lots of money. Maybe the types of things that you just mentioned are much more realistic about what lawyers can do on a daily basis. I think that some people have set out specifically to capture some of that realistic portrayal. . . .

I remember going to an LWI conference where the writing professors get together. And I went to a session where they had been filming a lawyer talking about how he helped an inmate. And it was a really [effective,] moving story . . . and I think that we were all very much in favor of having more of those types of realistic portraits conveyed and shown to people.


KM: Do you think the media has any kind of implicit responsibility in how it portrays the legal profession? For instance, it’s possible people who want to go to law school because of what they saw at JFK might realize that the law isn’t what they expected?

JG: I don’t know that I see any inherent responsibility, but I think that perhaps we as a profession have some responsibility to monitor those portrayals, to pay attention to them, and to try to correct some of them if they are so far off that they’re not representing our profession accurately and what it does. And I do think that lawyers have started to do that.


KM: A lot of us consume different media more immediately than ever before, whether it’s the news, literature, or otherwise. Do you have an opinion on the kind of long-term impact this may have on us? For instance, on how we reflect on or interact with literary texts?

JG: I’m not sure what’s going to happen, and I’m very concerned about it because I do think that students are reading and interacting with text differently than ever before. And I do think that impacts comprehension, long-term retention, and simply the ability to absorb some of the lessons that we’ve all thought literature can teach us over the years. You know, about learning about people who are different than we are and our ability to put ourselves in their shoes. I think that technology itself is changing the way we read.

I’ve done enough research to know that there is some understanding of that. And there are some additional things being added to electronic books, for example, that try to make the reading experience more like the traditional reading experience where you have something tangible in your hand. But I don’t know. I do think that the availability of all sorts of snippets has changed students’ ability to read or really comprehend what they’re reading and to spend vast amounts of time reading. 1L students [often arrive with] poor reading skills that we then have to try to alter that first year to help them dig more in-depth and spend more time without being so antsy and wanting everything at their fingertips. Sort of that internal drive to get to the bottom of things seems to be somewhat missing.

I am particularly concerned about this because I have a 15-year-old [daughter], and her reading habits are so very different than mine. And I just don’t know what that’s going to mean down the road. I [realize that] every older generation worries about [change, and maybe that’s all I am doing. Many of my LRW students tell me] that they don’t read as much as prior generations, [and some of them are not at all concerned about that.] Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.

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