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Teaching Advocacy Video Production in Law School: Getting by with a Lot of Help from My Collaborators

July 26, 2014

This is the first in a series of “how-to” posts on structuring a course that involves law students, supported by a host of collaborators, in producing and directing short social justice advocacy documentaries.

By Regina Austin

This is the first of a series of “how-to” posts that will describe the video production seminar I teach at Penn Law School and the benefits and challenges that teaching and producing visual advocacy in the law school setting present.  I hope these posts will encourage more law schools to undertake similar efforts to include video production training in their curriculums and inspire more legal academics to undertake visual legal advocacy and scholarship themselves. 


I have been teaching a course in which law students produce advocacy videos for use in connection with real social justice campaigns and initiatives since 2007.   You can find a host of their videos on the website of the Penn Program on Documentaries & the Law.  The topics cover a range of contemporary legal issues, including wage theft in the restaurant industry, the collection of criminal court fees and fines from persons who cannot afford to pay them, the theft of property through fraudulent deed conveyances, recreational disparities affecting the health and wellbeing of urban youth, and the civil rights of Asian immigrant children victimized by violence in a urban high school.  You will be amazed by the quality of the work.

Overview of the VLA Seminar. The seminar I teach gives law students the opportunity to develop skills as producers and directors of non-fiction visual advocacy work that is grounded in law and intended to impact ongoing social justice debates and controversies that are national in scope, yet local in impact.

The seminar is essentially a year-long course.  The classroom component of the first semester focuses on storytelling and argumentation; marshaling, creating, and using visual images and evidence in persuasive, aesthetically arresting, and legal ways; and the ethical obligations that are owed to one’s subjects and audience.  Hands-on basic training in how to stage an interview, operate the equipment (camera, lights, and mikes), and edit footage using Final Cut software is provided as well. 

During the first semester, the students select the topics they want to develop; form crews; contact the legal advocates, activists, and clients with whom they will be working; and do the legal and social science research that will enable them to produce a treatment or a shooting script by the end of the semester.

The production work really picks up at the start of the second semester. Most of the students’ effort goes into shooting interviews and supplementary footage.  Then they turn their attention to editing.  Working with our media lab director and trained technical facilitators where necessary, the students generate rough cuts that are previewed and vetted at a public event, our Rough Cut Video Festival which is typically held in late April or early May. 

Because we are committed to delivering videos to the clients, activists, and attorneys who have cooperated in the projects, the rough cuts are revised and refined by the crew (if its members have not gone off to work for the summer or to study for the bar) or by the lab director and the facilitators.  The completed videos are then streamed on the websites of the Docs Program, YouTube, and the collaborating public interest organizations; shown at special screenings in the Philadelphia area or on PhillyCAM, Philadelphia’s public access television station; and distributed via DVDs to participants in the productions and other interested parties.   

A Host of Collaborators. Visual legal advocacy of the kind the seminar students produce requires collective action.  It is collaborations across a number of constituencies that really make the seminar successful.  There are quite a number of these key players without whom the video work of the seminar would not be possible.

Public interest lawyers, activists, lay advocates, and clients.  When I started the seminar, I assumed that the students would be working on the most familiar forms of visual legal advocacy: visual victim impact statements, clemency videos, and visual immigration petitions.  However, in the fall of 2007, we held our first Visual Legal Advocacy Roundtable to introduce Penn Law’s Documentaries Program to local public interest lawyers.  We have not been at a loss for topics for short social justice advocacy documentaries ever since. 

A really viable topic will typically have the backing of (a) a lawyer or full-time activist who is charismatic and agreeable to appearing on screen as an expert and (b) a client or lay advocate who has first-hand experience with the issue and sees the video as a way of reaching others who are grappling with the same problems.  It is great when the videos  directly benefit of the clients and activists who contribute their time and a measure of their anonymity and privacy to work with student videomakers on a project that may be streamed on the Internet or aired on public access television.

The students get quite a benefit from engaging in visual legal advocacy and media campaigns with savvy practicing public interest attorneys, their clients, and grassroots activists.  The collaborators assist the students by scrutinizing and reviewing their rough cuts.  Furthermore, by working with parties actively involved in the public interest sector during the entire production cycle, the students have some assurance that their finished product will serve a useful purpose and find a ready-made audience.

The students and their friends, roommates, and family members.   Students enter the seminar with various levels of video production skills and familiarity with the documentary production process.  Some have been making nonfiction videos since junior high school, while others are essentially clueless.  The students work in groups or crews that are structured so that expertise is spread around and not concentrated in one or two of them.  An ideal crew will include one person with solid technical production skills, one person with production management or organizational skills, and one person with people skills who will interact with interviewees. 

The more experienced participants in the seminar liberally share their knowledge with the others.  If the seminar students themselves do not have the necessary talents, their classmates, friends, roommates, even relatives may be called upon to compose music, provide artwork and animation, act as foreign language interpreters, and record voiceover narrations.  The seminar allows students who participate in the video projects to be creative in ways that professional school or graduate school does not traditionally appreciate or recognize. The amount of effort that they are willing to expend to complete a video project can be amazing.  It constitutes an economic resource available to support a truly innovative, socially worthwhile, and practical addition to the curriculum at a time when contraction is occurring throughout the legal academy. 

Collaborators from throughout Penn and beyond.  Penn Law is part of a large university and provides a great deal of support for faculty like me to build interdisciplinary connections across the campus.  The VLA Seminar requires the instructor to assimilate and deploy of a significant amount of practical, reflexive, and intellectual learning that is associated with academic disciplines beyond the law.  Moreover, the impact of the videos the seminar produces is bolstered by inclusion of the opinions of experts which Penn has in abundance.  I take full advantage of our being situated in a university setting in conducting the seminar. 

I can draw on an extensive network of colleagues from such diverse departments and programs as Cinema Studies, Women’s Studies, and Anthropology, all in the School of Arts and Sciences; the Annenberg School of Communications; the Graduate School of Education; and the Perlman School of Medicine, as well as the Vitale Digital Media Lab which is located in the main campus library and the Penn Video Network.  Within Penn Law itself, the seminar gets support from ITS, Communications, and the clinical programs.  

Outside of Penn, there are media arts organizations that we have worked with, such as Scribe Video Center, the Media Mobilizing Project, and PhillyCAM, as well as the Urban Archives of Temple University. 

Expert facilitators.  It is not the aim of the seminar to turn out cinematographers or editors.  The law students who take the course are, however, very talented and creative; the seminar gives them the opportunity to put their legal expertise to work using different media.  While we do not expect every student to achieve a high level of production facility, we do expect their work product to meet a fairly high level of quality.  When necessary we provide the crews with trained technical facilitators or advisors to assist them with shooting and editing.  We want a final cut that respects the significance of the input of their on-screen collaborators and the reasonable expectations of the targeted audiences.  That we are providing video advocacy on a pro bono basis is no excuse for a shoddy work product.  

(I should say that I borrowed the idea of using trained videographers (mostly young recent film school graduates) from Scribe Video Center which employs experts in media production, the humanities, and the social sciences to support local groups making videos about their communities.)

The chief facilitator is the director of our digital media lab who is a member of the Penn Law ITS staff.  Both Neal Swisher, our original lab director, and Jason Hinmon, who currently occupies the position, are trained videographers and very patient and supportive teachers.  The lab director  is primarily responsible for maintaining and overseeing use of the equipment and providing technical production and post-production support for seminar members.  He is responsible for getting the videos up on the screen for the Rough Cut Video Festival and ultimately getting them streamed on the Internet and made available on DVDs.  Jason is the person who has stayed up with the students into the wee hours of the morning of the day of the Festival. 


I confess that I am shameless about enlisting the participation of all of these collaborators in the work of the VLA Seminar.  I believe that they are willing to help because the video projects are interesting and important.  The seminar has a track record of producing solid video work delivered in a timely fashion.  Of course, the collaborators play an enormous role in our ability to do this.  I cannot thank them enough for their generosity.