Entering the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of London and Wales, Anna Poulakas ’23 was transported back in time. Adorned in wigs and robes, the judges, lawyers, and clerks in the courtrooms could have been pulled from the pages of Dickens’ Bleak House, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes collection, or Rawling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For Poulakas and 12 other St. John’s Law students, London was where law and literature converged over spring break.
The students traveled abroad as participants in the Dean’s Travel Study Program, which offers selected upper-level students an unrivaled opportunity to experience diverse legal systems around the world. This year’s course, Comparative Legal Systems: Law & Literature London, was designed by Mary C. Daly Professor of Legal Writing Rachel H. Smith, who led the program along with St. John’s Law Associate Dean for Library Services and Professor of Legal Research Courtney Selby and St. John’s Vice Dean for Student Success and Retention Strategy Sarah Jean Kelly.
“We wanted to help students develop a basic understanding of the theory, tools, and interpretative methods of law and literature, using London as a backdrop for thinking about lawyers and the law in the United Kingdom and the United States,” Dean Smith says. “Students read Bleak House, one of Dickens’ great legal novels, as well as stories about Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter, to think deeply about justice, corruption, individual responsibility, and institutional failure. Then, while sampling some of the cultural and legal highlights of London, students saw how literature is uniquely able to cultivate empathy for others, particularly those accused of and the victims of crime.”
In addition to the Old Bailey, among other points of interest, the group toured the Royal Courts of Justice, the British Library—home to the Magna Carta and Anne Boleyn’s copy of the Tyndale Bible—the Tower of London, and the British Museum. At the Charles Dickens Museum and the Sherlock Holmes Museum, they learned about the lived experiences that shaped acclaimed fictional depictions of London’s legal system. Literature also came to life delightfully on a studio tour about the making of Harry Potter.
“I participated in the Law and Literature London course because literature has had a profound impact on my desire to become an attorney,” says Sean King ’23. “Walking the streets of London, sitting in on courtroom proceedings, and observing solicitors at work, we immersed ourselves in the world that famed authors attempted to recreate. It was also interesting to observe the differences in how court proceedings are handled in England versus the United States, despite both of our laws originating from the Common Law.”
Like King, Anna Poulakas appreciated the chance to look at London and the law through a literary lens. “I enjoyed each aspect of our trip in a unique way,” she shares. “For me, there is nothing like learning about something and then seeing it before my very eyes. It gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation for what I spend time studying and pondering. One of my favorite things is to compare reality with the way I imagined it. Oftentimes, the two are so different, and I love to see the way it actually is. The travel study program offered me many interesting points of comparison.”
Reflecting on the teaching and learning in London, Dean Smith agrees that it was a special experience. “The course was a success because the participants were tremendous,” she says. “They were enthusiastic and curious about everything we saw. It was so fun to be there with students who will soon be graduating and who began their legal studies in socially distanced classrooms or online. This is a very special group, and I feel lucky to have spent time with them doing something that, when they started at St. John’s Law, I was afraid would never be possible. I will never forget it.”