“Attorneys are storytellers”: Smith shares four ways English is an advantageous precursor to law and education
Jason Smith (’04) is Director of Legal Writing and Assistant Professor of Law at Lincoln Memorial University in Knoxville. After majoring in English (Literature), he graduated from UT’s College of Law in 2009. He spoke with Prof. Hilary Havens about majoring in English literature and how Shakespeare, Cormac McCarthy, and Octavia Butler helped him incorporate empathy into his legal work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hilary Havens: Thank you so much for joining me today, Jason. It’s wonderful to hear from a former major who became an attorney and then a law professor, so you can share things from multiple perspectives. Can you begin by telling me a little bit about your work as a law professor at Lincoln Memorial University (LMU)?
Jason Smith: I am director of our legal writing curriculum in addition to being a normal professor. I design the curriculum, implement it, and come up with the problems that students have to do. We give them assignments that are similar to what they would do in a law firm. My subspecialty is criminal law, so I teach a few criminal law classes like our death penalty seminar or on post-conviction remedies. When you hear of somebody who’s innocent and they’ve been released, it’s usually through some sort of post-conviction proceeding.
HH: That sounds so fascinating. I know you were an attorney before you became a law professor. Was that also in criminal law?
JS: I was in a medium-sized firm here in Knoxville. The cases were a mix of personal injury and defending people for insurance companies. I was the research attorney and would draft what we would file in court. After about a year, I got hired by Judge D. Kelly Thomas, Jr. on the court of criminal appeals. Once you go through your trial, you can appeal to a higher court for criminal matters. I was a law clerk for Judge Thomas. A clerk is like a ghost writer for a judge. The judges have to write more opinions than they individually can, so they get a few attorneys to work for them and help draft their opinions. I spent almost nine years doing that. So my background is deeply embedded in Tennessee criminal law because we covered everything. I think the simplest case I worked on was a speeding ticket, but it went all the way up to first degree murder cases and all the issues that come with those. My work involved reading the trial transcripts, reading briefs written by attorneys, researching legal issues, and then writing or helping to draft the opinions. So a lot of time was spent writing during those nine years.
HH: I can imagine some of your experience as Judge Thomas’s clerk informs your criminal justice classes.
JS: In law school you’re often working with the law as an abstract concept, so students have very practical questions about how the court works, and each court is different. But there’s a similarity that runs throughout courts, which I have learned after having read and reviewed so many trial records. Part of the reason I made the switch from clerking to teaching writing was that there’s a lot of bad attorney writing. I’m trying to help improve the profession in that regard.
HH: That’s excellent, and that segues to my next question, which is, how did your time at UT help you on your current career path?
JS: I’ve been thinking about this question, and I think I’ve come up with four points. I’ll start with the most obvious: writing. I was a lit major, and you write papers. You get better at it by doing more of it: practice makes progress. You’re never perfect, but you’re always improving. Just getting that experience in undergrad, having to write all the papers that I wrote for lit classes was helpful. That constant sort of writing practice was incredibly helpful to me, and I think it’s helpful to people who want to go to law school.
The second point is narrative. I talk a lot to my students about a basic narrative structure like conflict, climax, and resolution, or beginning, middle, and end because attorneys deal with all sorts of facts that come from different areas. It’s a complete jumble. Part of our job is to organize those facts and put them in a coherent narrative. Attorneys are storytellers. Most of the time we think about lawyers in court arguing in front of the Supreme Court or to a jury and doing it orally. But in reality, our main method of communication is writing. Oral arguments are actually a smaller part of it. It just looks better when you put it on TV rather than someone setting behind their desktop. As an undergrad, learning narrative structures within literature was really vital to my work as a law student, an attorney, and now as a teacher.
And then the third one is that English majors, especially lit majors, have to read stuff really closely. You’re thinking about, what does this mean? What does the reader perceive it to mean? Do we look at the historical context? And attorneys have to do that, too. Because again, we communicate through writing: judicial opinions and statutes by legislatures are written, and we’re always having to interpret those. An English major is more equipped to handle the volume of reading you have to do in law school, and as an attorney, you must read closely and interpret.
The last one is empathy. This gets developed as you read more fiction and literature. Our clients are usually in all positions. Sometimes they’re not like us. We do the job every day, so it becomes routine and boring to us. But for your client, their legal matters are the most important things to them. Being able to empathize with them and see where they’re coming from, as well as seeing where the opposition is coming from, is really helpful to attorneys. I try to bring it into the classroom when I teach a death penalty seminar as we’re talking about the defendants. There is this quote from Othello where Othello says, “I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable.— / If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.” The idea is that Iago is the devil himself. But then you hear from mitigation experts about what the defendant’s life was like. This quote from Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God comes to mind: he says, “A child of God much like yourself,” about a serial killer who is still like me. When you’re reading through a case, sometimes they are names and then a description of really horrible actions. You don’t get the full picture of the people involved. For defendants and victims, being able to see people and empathize with them is really important.
Another thing that I think about is the history of the death penalty and how and why it’s so prevalent. I think about Kindred,which I read in my race and ethnicity class at UT as an English major, and how, for me, that really illustrated that abstract concept. I couldn’t let go of that book. Octavia Butler really made it real for me. That helps me as I explain why we have more death penalty convictions in the Southeast when we have this long history of racial imbalance. It comes up in so many ways as I try to teach these complex legal concepts to students and find other areas where they could relate to them.
HH: It’s wonderful to see how Shakespeare, McCarthy, and Butler are still influencing you as you’re thinking about the law. I was wondering if you could share some of your fondest memories of professors and classes.
JS: I did not intend to be an English major. I had a really good high school English teacher, but I thought I was going to be a history major. I took the British lit survey course with Professor Elli Shellist, and we did Othello. That was the first time I read it, and after taking that class I was sold. I took another English class the next semester, and we started with Wuthering Heights, and as a moody and romantic 19-year-old, I was hooked. And so that’s how I ended up as a major, through these amazing experiences and basic survey courses.
I graduated a semester late because I took a lot of creative writing classes. I had Art Smith, and that was an amazing experience, because the poet Jack Gilbert was the writer-in-residence that year and came to our class. We read through The Great Fires, and he had a reading. I have an autographed copy of The Great Fires, which is one of my most treasured possessions. Of the people that took that class with me, a couple of us had poems read at our weddings from that book. I’m gushing about Jack Gilbert, but Professor Smith was an amazing professor: I loved that class.
At UT, I was exposed to different stuff. I took a lot of poetry classes. I took a lot of medieval literature. I’m really interested in the history of the law, so I do reach back sometimes not necessarily to the literature, but to think about the history of it. From that first survey to the very end, there are lots of great memories.
HH: That’s wonderful. I also started out in a different field, and in my second year of college, I had some of the most wonderful English professors. I thought, why not major in English?
JS: I had an interesting juxtaposition, too, because I was a double major with political science. In political science, we would viciously debate these things and say, “No, you’re wrong, and you’re so wrong for being wrong.” But in English, it’s like, “I don’t know – you could be right.” The discussion was so wide open, and everyone’s opinion was just out there and floated unlike with polarization in the political science. They both did good things for me in law school because with political science I learned how government works. Close reading is an essential skill for lawyers, and so is knowing how government works. So I was able to blend the best of both of them. But if I look back on it, most of my memories from college are from English classes.
HH: That’s great to hear. From the standpoint as a law professor, how prepared do you feel like those English majors are in law school?
JS: I come at it from two ways. I’ve been on the [LMU law school] admissions committee for the last three years. When I see an English major, I light up because I think it’s a more rigorous major than some other majors. Sometimes it’s a double-edged sword. I usually don’t have to worry about grammar and sentence structure with English majors. However, legal work is technical writing, and we have a formula for legal analysis. Sometimes more creative English majors brush up against that, and science majors sometimes latch onto it a lot quicker. But usually my best writers do have that English background. People tend to overwrite, but often English majors succeed because they have so much more practice writing. I don’t have to spend as much time correcting things like subject-verb agreement. The other thing is that they have to learn how to use statutes in cases. And again, that close reading skill makes English majors better at parsing than some of the other students who just regurgitate as much as they can.
HH: The last thing I want to ask you, is why should someone major in English today?
JS: It goes back to that empathy point earlier. It gives you this wide window to the world. I come from Anderson County, so I only moved 20 miles south, but it opened up this whole inner world of experiences for me that I didn’t necessarily get going to high school in quasi-rural Tennessee. Having that opened up gives you a better ability to write, relate to other people and to the world around you. Then you get the practical writing skills and you’re getting to have fun in class, thinking, debating. Those conversations were always really entertaining. Also being exposed to things. I don’t know if I ever would have read Kindred or Octavia Butler and stumbled into Afro-Futurism sci-fi if I hadn’t taken that class, and she’s one of my favorite writers now. Wuthering Heights and Othello expose you to things so woven into our everyday language that we don’t even notice anymore. In short, majors get a lot of good practical skills, but they get to have fun while being exposed to this whole amazing universe out there.