About the Course

Visual Persuasion in the Law Seminar

© Richard K. Sherwin
Email: rsherwin@nyls.edu


New digital technologies are altering the way law is practiced and taught. Images are increasingly becoming a regular part of the way lawyers communicate and argue (in court and out). Thinking in images, however, is different from thinking in words alone, and competency in the production, interpretation, and cross-examination of images is not a given. Like the art of writing and reading words, visual literacy also requires deliberate cultivation. That is the objective of this course. Students will cultivate through hands-on visual production the skill-set that lawyers need for effective visual communication and advocacy in the digital age. We will read across several disciplines (including cognitive studies, art history, the semiotics of advertising, popular culture studies, etc.) while also engaging in basic visual training (including the rudiments of camera work, lighting, sound, and digital editing). We will work collaboratively as a seminar and in the Digital Media Lab. Each student will engage in a project that will require the application of various visual competencies. Student projects may include: the production of demonstrative evidence or closing visual arguments in connection with actual cases; short film documentaries on specific legal subjects (based on past or current cases or controversies); as well as the creation of visual teaching objects (such as graphics and games) that may be used in class or on line to teach a particular legal topic. No previous background in visual production is required.

Students are expected to complete the assigned readings and to participate in class (including various visual exercises). While in-class participation and exercises are not individually graded, 20% of your final grade will be based on class participation. The remaining 80% will be based on the visual project that you elect to undertake in consultation with the instructor and in collaboration with your chosen teammates.


[Class 1]
Introduction to Visual Persuasion in the Law

Examples of legal visual rhetoric will be shown and discussed; course requirements and projects will be discussed; visual persuasion in the law will be situated in the ancient/humanist rhetorical tradition; reading assignments and deadlines will be discussed.


A. Visual Persuasion:

(1) Richard K. Sherwin, Visualizing Law in the Age of the Digital Baroque (excerpt);
(2) Marshall McLuhan, “Woman in a Mirror;”

B. Law as Rhetoric:

(3) Gorgias, Encomium of Helen;
(4) Plato, Gorgias (excerpt);
(5) Aristotle, Rhetoric (excerpt);
(6) “Reason Seen More as Weapon than Path to Truth,” The New York Times (6-14-11).

[Class 2]
Demonstrative Evidence; Law and Popular Culture

Successful advocacy in a law case requires weaving together relevant rules and a compelling narrative; in the early modern common law tradition visual images [as “emblems”] served a prominent storytelling role; images today once again are playing that role.


A. Law on demonstrative evidence:

(1) G. Chris Ritter, Winning Trial Strategies (excerpt);

B. Visual Storytelling:

(2) Avi Stachenfeld, “Blurred Boundaries: An Analysis of the Close Relationship between Popular Culture and the Practice of Law;”

C. Emblems:

(3) Peter Goodrich, “On the Philosophy of Legal
Emblems” (excerpt);

First Visual Exercise – create an emblem.

[Class 3]
Theory of the case; Still photo sequence

How lawyers strategize cases; the double helix: interweaving compelling narratives and pertinent rules; hands-on exercise involving visual storytelling.


A. Theory of the Case:

(1) Robert Burns, A Theory of the Trial (excerpt);

B. Storytelling:

(2) Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (excerpt);
(3) Robert McKee, Story (excerpt);
(4) Anthony Amsterdam & Jerome Bruner, Minding the Law (excerpt);

Second Visual Exercise – still photo project.

[Class 4]
Visual Literacy: Reading a documentary

What is visual literacy? assessing the craft of visual meaning making; critical viewing, visual advocacy, and cross-examining visuals; what is true, and how do viewers know?


A. Visual Literacy:

(1) Richard K. Sherwin, “Visual Literacy in Action,” (excerpt);

B. What is thinking? (persuasion and judgment; reason and emotion; cognitive & cultural constructs):

(2) George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (excerpt);
(3) Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (excerpt);
(4) Anne Marie Seward Barry, Visual Intelligence (excerpt);
(5) Neal Feigenson, Legal Blame: How Jurors Think and Talk About Accidents (excerpt).

C. Documentary film viewing.

[Class 5]
Visual Storytelling in Court

Assessing in-court videos – ranging from police surveillance videos to day-in-the-life personal injury documentaries and victim impact videos in a capital case.


(1) Dan Kahan, “Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe? Scott v. Harris and the Perils of Cognitive Illiberalism;”
(2) Regina Austin, “What Should be Made of Victim Impact Videos?”

[Class 6]
Narrative and Law; Rough Cut Film Edits

Continued analysis of the visual legal storytelling process; hands-on exercise involving the creation of visual narratives.


A. On narrative in law:

(1) Nancy Pennington & Reid Hastie, “A Cognitive Theory of Juror Decision Making: The Story Model” (excerpt);
(2) W. Lance Bennett & Martha Feldman, Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom (excerpt);
(3) Anthony Amsterdam & Randy Hertz, “An Analysis of Closing Arguments to a Jury,” (excerpt);

Third Visual Exercise – Rough Cut Film Edits

[Class 7]
Video Production Training Workshop

Basic training in use of camera, sound, & lighting. Begin collaborative teamwork and individualized consultation with instructor on final projects.

[Class 8]
Video Editing Workshop [I]

Tutorial sessions on video editing in the Digital Media Lab.

[Class 9]
Video Editing Workshop [II]

Tutorial sessions on video editing in the Digital Media Lab.

[Classes 10 – 12]
Collaborative teamwork and individualized c
onsultation with instructor on final projects

Teams work on their final projects.

[Class 13]
Display and Discuss Final Projects

[Class 14]
Display and Discuss Final Projects (conclude); On the Ethics of Visual Persuasion

Closing discussion on the ethics of visual persuasion in the law and the aspiration to truth-based justice in the visual/digital age.


(1) Anthony Kronman, “Rhetoric”;
(2) Richard K. Sherwin, Visualizing Law in the Age of the Digital Baroque (excerpt).

* * *

Connecticut Public Television documentary coverage of “Visual Persuasion in the Law” [including interviews with students and faculty]