Teaching Legal Truths with Fiction

The Brooklyn Law School Library New Book List for February 1, 2011 includes Andrew Popper’s novel Rediscovering Lone Pine, (Call #PS3616.0658.R43 2009). It is the story of three childhood friends and their persistence in solving the mystery of a fourth friend who went missing in the woods when they were young. The setting of the book is very much like the author’s own childhood in upstate New York. Told in first person narrative by Grant Harper, the story relates how, in 1959 at age 10, he sets out to find a hidden fort in the woods with his friend Jason, who disappears in the woods haunting Grant into his adulthood.
The book tracks these childhood friends through their teenage years, law school and into their first years in practice. The story includes accounts of starting a law practice, handling a competency hearing in a murder trial and explores legal issues through the art of storytelling. The story line, although implausible, has themes that can help law students learn the development of case theory and understand aspects of lawyer confidentiality.

Popper, a law professor at the American University Washington College of Law for 30 years, began writing fiction later in life. The art of writing fiction has honed his abilities to train his law students to write in a simple and compelling way. “Nothing has helped me more as a teacher than fiction writing,” he says. “Rediscovering Lone Pine” is the first work of fiction published by West and it includes a discussion guide of legal and ethical issues, such as how representing close friends and family members affects an attorney’s professional judgment, and whether it is justifiable to take the law into your own hands when a family member’s well-being is at stake. The author has used the guide in the classroom for learning case theory and to help lead law students to better legal thinking. “So much of that class is asking a student, ’Tell me what this case is about.’ That’s the standard question in legal education,” Popper said. “And by getting my students to work within manageable fiction, ‘Tell me what that story was about’ and they can get there pretty easily after a while. ‘Now tell me what this case is about.’ Because it’s the same thing. It’s the same exercise. It’s not magically something different. It’s exactly the same thing.”

On West’s website, Popper said “I think it is the challenge of every lawyer, in fact everyone involved in the legal system, to figure out how one goes about telling an effective story. I set out to make Rediscovering Lone Pine relevant to law students and create an interesting story that gave me a lot of opportunities to develop themes related to the law and the legal system.” A conversation with Popper about the book is available here.