What can a ‘jailhouse lawyer’ teach Harvard law students? Gigi Stone and Mary Harris set to explore this question in their article 'Jailhouse Lawyer' Lectures Harvard Law Students. It is a story about an inmate who received life in prison without a possibility of parole due to what he believed was ineffective assistance of counsel. He taught himself law and now uses his legal skills to help fellow inmates to prepare their appeals. His article was published in the Harvard Civil Rights - Civil Liberties Review, and he is a guest lecturer in one of Harvard’s law classes. The authors write that his “presence at Harvard has transformed the career goals of many students.”
As I was reading the article, I began wondering why his lectures had such an impact. What made this learning experience so effective? As I was thinking about it, the six principles of stickiness came to mind from the book Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die…Made to Stick by Cheap Heath and Dan Heath. The six principles are simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. (Brain Based Business has a nice review of the book.) It’s not really surprising because learning is about ideas that we hope are going to stick. The 'jailhouse lawyer’s' message is so effective because:
- It is simple. His position is clear and easily understood.
- It is unexpected. We don’t expect that a public defender’s mistake is going to render a person in jail for life. It is unexpected for an inmate to become a lawyer in prison and teach Harvard law students.
- It is concrete. His story makes abstract legal principles come to life. Students see the consequences of a bad decision.
- It is credible. Unlike the “Law & Order” series, it is a real person talking to the students by speakerphone from prison. It’s one thing to read about a victim of the legal process, it’s another to talk to him.
- It is emotional. The message is about people’s lives, justice, and the lawyers’ role in the process. It touches students in a way that a textbook cannot.
- It is a story. It is about a crime and the unfair punishment, the obstacles and the newly found purpose in life. Stories are the oldest way to communicate and a powerful way to learn. We remember lessons better when they are embedded in a story.
Do we need more of such learning experiences in law school? What do you think? What makes learning effective for you? As always, comments are welcome.