Serial Podcast Shows How Much You Can Learn From a Single Case

The first episode of the Serial podcast’s new season is a dramatic illustration of how much you can learn from a single case.  The case involves a young white woman who was prosecuted for her participation in a bar fight.  The Serial team are incredible storytellers, so this podcast is not “just” educational, but it is completely engrossing, making you want to know every detail, especially how it turns out.

As tempting as it would be to analyze the details of the case, I don’t want to spoil it for you as I hope that you – and your students and colleagues – will want to listen to it asap.

I will, however, generally describe the kinds of things you learn in this episode.

To understand this case properly, you need to understand the context, which the program provides.  Among other things, it describes the physical and social layout of the Justice Center in Cleveland, racial patterns among the various types of actors in the scene, characteristics of defendants in the criminal justice system, relationships between defense lawyers and different categories of clients, relationships between prosecutors and defense attorneys, factors in prosecutors’ and judges’ decisions, and the immense pressure on everyone to resolve cases through plea bargains.

Of course, the main focus of this episode is the case itself and you hear a lot of evidence from just about every possible source.  There was a surveillance video of the incident, which the podcast describes.  It also includes excerpts of audio from police bodycams, as well as interviews of the arresting officer and witnesses of the fight.  The journalists also interviewed the defendant and especially her lawyer, a 41-year veteran defense attorney, and the prosecutor.

Most folks in our field focus on civil cases, not criminal cases, and many of us are justifiably concerned about excessive pressure in dispute resolution processes.  In criminal cases, the system is full of coercion and injustice.  This insight is illustrated by a quote from the defense attorney.  He said, “We’re trying to get rid of cases.  If somebody is offered a plea to a misdemeanor, you take it.  Be done.  OK.  That’s a win in defense parlance.  The feeling will be, well, she has a prior record anyway, so a plea to a misdemeanor is of no consequence here.  I remember one judge told me—and this is—one judge told me, in this county, innocence is a misdemeanor. … What that means is, if they don’t have the evidence against you, they’ll let you plead out to a misdemeanor.  If they can’t prove you’re guilty, they’ll give you a misdemeanor.”

One of the most useful lessons in this episode comes from the detailed description of the tangible and intangible costs of being a defendant in the criminal justice system.

Learning From Real-Life Cases

Lawyers, law professors, and law students also learn from real-life cases – generally appellate cases that are radically de-contextualized.  This is especially true in traditional law school casebooks focused on legal doctrine, where facts are omitted unless necessary to illustrate a legal point.  Even full appellate reports are limited to legally-relevant facts, and the selection and portrayal of facts obviously is biased to be consistent with the courts’ decisions.

While using appellate case decisions may (or may not) be the best way to develop and disseminate legal doctrine, it’s an absolutely lousy way to learn what really happened in those cases and how the legal system actually works.

There are much better ways to learn about what really happens in legal cases.  Empirical researchers and documentary journalists like the Serial team provide a much richer and more balanced understanding.

There are a lot of similarities between empirical researchers who rely on qualitative data and documentary journalists.  Both groups follow certain (though different) procedures for collecting and analyzing information to compose the most accurate possible portrayal of reality.  A major difference is the way they present their findings, as researchers tend to write dry reports for other researchers whereas journalists produce stories for the general public that are designed to be as compelling as possible.

The Serial team is an outstanding collection of journalists.  Here’s a photo of host and executive producer Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi, who did a lot of the reporting.

And here’s a shot of Sarah Koenig, This American Life guru Ira Glass, and senior producer Julie Snyder.



The Serial team spent a year studying the criminal courts in Cleveland and are strategically planning to provide as accurate and compelling analysis as they can.  This first episode zoomed in on a single case and the second episode zoomed out to provide an survey of the approaches of different judges in the court.  I have no idea what they plan to do with the rest of the season.  But I will wait with bated breath (whatever that is).

Several years ago, I conducted a study in which I interviewed 32 lawyers about the cases they settled most recently.  Six of the cases were criminal cases, an area I haven’t studied very much.  Of course, I didn’t learn as much about criminal justice as the Serial team did.  But I learned a lot that I wouldn’t have known – and what I learned was very consistent with what Serial described.

One of the purposes in developing the Stone Soup Project was to encourage faculty to conduct their own qualitative research.  As part of a mini-course to encourage YOU to do some interviews, I described projects that I have done and suggested that other colleagues could do things like this too.

So consider conducting interviews about real cases for your next publications.  It’s fun, you will learn some amazing things, and you can truly create new knowledge.

4 thoughts on “Serial Podcast Shows How Much You Can Learn From a Single Case”

  1. As a second-year law student, I recently emerged out of a year of reading cases that all so nicely wrapped up with a bow in just under 10 pages. Every fact has relevance and every sentence has a purpose. So, being confronted with the reality of the practice, the messy and tangle-filled web of the practice of law, it was daunting.
    But this piece serves as an incredible reminder that there is much to be learned in the mess and chaos of stories. A reminder of the humanity behind the case. Life is not a straight line, and neither are the cases clients present. Every fact a client presents may not have legal significance, but it may have significance to them, and that is important too. Thank you for the reminder to become invested in the whole story. Thank you for this lovely reminder to find the beauty in the mess and in learning. Oh and to add this podcast back to my playlist!

    1. I completely agree with Meaghan here. So much of law school is reading cases that have all the relevant information clearly laid out with very little analysis necessary to determine why the information may be important. All 3 seasons of Serial do an excellent job of laying out how complex an actual case can be. Mr. Lande makes a great point that a big part of building a case for a client is being able to suss out the relevant information from the information that may appear helpful on the surface but in fact offers no real legal benefit.

  2. I listened to season one of the Serial podcast back in 2014 when it first came out. I was fascinated with the whole series and wanted more when it ended! I thought it was amazing how detailed the series was and was intrigued from start to finish. As a third-year law student, I then decided to listen to season one again. This time, I was still amazed by how much detail went into the reporting. However, I remember thinking to myself “wow I wish all the cases we read in law school were this interesting.”

    I agree with the comments above. In law school you only get the relevant facts that are needed to show how a holding was achieved. Serial does a great job of showing just how much information is actually used/needed in a case. Sometimes all a person needs and/or wants is to tell their whole story! We don’t get that in law school. If cases we read in law school started to give a better in-depth view of the facts, then maybe students could relate and/or remember the cases better due to being interested by the specific facts. I find myself all too often reading a case and not remembering a single aspect of it because of how boring it was. However, even listening to season one four years ago, I still could recite what happened and what came of it.

    This is a good reminder to seek the whole story and not jump to conclusions based on a handful of facts that are given to you! Although I have yet to listen to the next two seasons, I am sure I will be just as captivated as I was in season one!

  3. Mr. Lande and the few commenters above have perfectly distinguished the law school style cases we endlessly prepare for class from the abundance of complex details a case outside of school truly entails. Once we leave the library and enter practice, although it will take time adjusting to, it is critical that we become acustomed to critically analyzing not just the relevant facts given, but rather the take the endless flow of information that our clients provide us with and continuously narrow them down in order to establish a straightforward, concise yet powerful case for them. We lack this experience in law school and as Meaghan said it perfectly, we spend our time “reading cases that all so nicely wrapped up with a bow in just under 10 pages.”

    This podcast and Mr. Lande’s post acts as a great reminder for us to consider everything that a case has to offer. I can easily remember feeling lost the first time that the attorney I clerked for set a file the size of 3 case books combined, on my desk and asked me to find the most relevant facts and organize them in a logical way. Although challenging, it was a great illustration of what cases outside of the books are like and it provided me with an opportunity to practice this high level of consideration we must take in practice.

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