A while back I quoted from popular fiction writer (and lawyer) David Baldacci that in the business of representing clients in court, the best story wins. Believing this to be so—it’s not the entire ball game, but it’s a big part of it—how do we tell the story most effectively? Here’s where Philip N. Meyer helps. Meyer, a law professor at the University of Vermont and Iowa Writers Workshop alum, has authored a book on this topic, and it’s worth reading if you are a lawyer who has to persuade judges and juries.
Meyer juxtaposes films (High Noon, for instance), fine nonfiction, and writings about narrative (academic and popular) to bring together his argument about the importance of storytelling (the less highfalutin word for narrative). While he draws on a number of different examples, the best sources are closing arguments made in two fascinating trials. The first is Gerry Spence’s closing in the Silkwood case and the other is a murder and racketeering trial that involved a Mafia foot soldier. In both instances, Meyer analyzes the structure and flow of the arguments as narratives that brings together an account in favor of the client. Spence’s closing weaves a story back in time (the events in question) and forward in time: the future is dependent on the jury’s decision. Spence’s argument merits this attention, as it reveals genuine rhetorical and narrative skill. (Don’t ever let Spence’s cowboy outfit and rough demeanor fool you: he’s a very sophisticated practitioner who blends deep learning with genuine street-wise knowledge.) The other example Meyer focuses upon is a closing by Connecticut attorney Jeremiah Donovan, who defended a low echelon mobster in a racketeering case. In that instance, Donovan’s client didn’t testify, so Donovan was able to testify for the client in closing (in a manner of speaking). Through deft use of narrative and simple visuals, Donavan portrayed his client’s actions—especially his otherwise damning taped conversations—in a light that allowed for a different understanding the literal meaning of the words argued by the prosecutor. As opposed to the story conveyed by the prosecution, Donovan delivered a back-story that countered the worst contention against his client (that he intended to murder his grandson’s father!).
In addition to deconstructing these two exemplary closing arguments, Meyer also examines appellate briefs alongside nonfiction narratives and Hollywood screenplays to display the array of tools and choices that the lawyer has in her toolbox to construct the client’s case. The examples are well chosen and well considered.
For me, the ultimate test of any book that makes recommendations about the practice of law is whether I can use the information it conveys now. This book proved an immediate help for me in working on an appellate brief. In drafting a statement of facts, I became much more keenly aware of the choices available to me. In addition, I became enthused about the craftsmanship that I needed to exercise to draft the most effective statement of facts, knowing that judges are inundated with long, boring recitations of facts in long, boring briefs. I don’t know that I’ll make to the promised land of the perfect brief, but now I have stronger sense of what it will read like.
This review from my Taking Readings blog certainly applies to lawyers. In fact, it applies to just about everyone. I know that when I began practice–over 30 years ago!–time management became a more acute concern as the demands of multiple cases began to pile up quickly. I often felt overwhelmed. Chandler’s book, along with the Pressfield books I reference in the blog, address these issues from a most useful perspective. Not perfectly, but with the use of calendars and processes, it should work to keep the wolves at bay. So, without further ado:
A Review of Time Warrior: How to defeat procrastination, people-pleasing, self-doubt, over-commitment, broken promises and chaos by Steve Chandler
- by Stephen N. Greenleaf
- Oct. 14, 2014
- 7 min read
This book serves as a fine companion work to Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art and Do the Work!. While Chandler focuses on the familiar theme of “time management”, both he and Pressfield focus on getting things done (and not necessarily as David Allen would have you do it). This book is pithy and easy to read. It could be shorter, and it’s no literary giant. But the message is worthwhile. In fact, in tight, short sentences, Chandler packs somewallop. His style, in addition to his quotes, tends toward the aphoristic. Accordingly, what follows are my quotes of him, his sources, my aphoristic thoughts generated by his insights, and my meta-comments [in brackets]. (I capitalize some words on my own accord as key terms taken from or inspired by Chandler.)
- Non-linear time management involves three options: Now, Not Now (but a date certain), & Never. [I think he should include a fourth: Now Later. For instance, one can use almost any Now to take out the garbage or do the dishes, but some Nows are better than others for productivity. Some tasks are Labor (Arendt), which is by nature repetitive and doesn’t need special attention. Chandler implies that all Time is equally valuable, but this isn’t so. Some, like me for instance, prefer to perform more demanding, creative tasks in the morning, with less demanding tasks—dishes, reading & answering emails, garbage, etc.—left to the afternoon.]
Let’s stop here. Lots of excellent ideas and perspectives. A fine and lasting tonic.
1. Writing guru Constance Hale shares a blog about slow writers and slow writing. I’m a slow writer (if you count multiple revisions), and the slow writing angle is interesting, although it’s probably not something busy lawyers and others would like to consider. But consider the benefits and intentions before casting the ideas aside.
2. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has just published a new book about writing,The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014). I haven’t read it yet, but we get a bit of a preview in this shorter piece on “Why Academics Stink at Writing“, which I fear rivals a lot of legal writing for the title of most boring and numbing. Read this critique of academic writing and apply it to your briefs, and you’ll become more persuasive. If nothing else, a judge will be more likely to read what you’ve written.
3. This piece from Farnum Street is a portion of the transcript of a conversation between David Foster Wallace and legal writing guru Bryan Garner. The entire conversation becomes a book entitled Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner Talk Language & Writing.
First, if you don’t subscribe to Brain Pickings, you really should. Along with Farnum Street, it’s one of the best sources of informed thinking, art, and inspiration on the web. (In fact, its much better about the arts than Farnum Street.) Among other regular topics, writing is a frequent concern. In particular, this post recounts and quotes the work of early 20th century writing guru Arthur Quiller-Couch, author of the book On the Art of Writing. Read Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova’s full account of this book, but allow me to quote just a bit from it now. This goes to the issue of persuasion and its role in life. Read these words carefully. Quiller-Couch writes:
Persuasiveness … embraces the whole — not only the qualities of propriety, perspicuity, accuracy … but many another, such as harmony, order, sublimity, beauty of diction; all in short that — writing being an art, not a science, and therefore so personal a thing — may be summed up under the word Charm. Who, at any rate, does not seek after Persuasion? It is the aim of all the arts and, I suppose, of all exposition of the sciences; nay, of all useful exchange of converse in our daily life. It is what Velasquez attempts in a picture, Euclid in a proposition, the Prime Minister at the Treasury box, the journalist in a leading article, our Vicar in his sermon. Persuasion, as Matthew Arnold once said, is the only true intellectual process. The mere cult of it occupied many of the best intellects of the ancients, such as Longinus and Quintilian, whose writings have been preserved to us just because they were prized. Nor can I imagine an earthly gift more covetable by you … than that of persuading your fellows to listen to your views and attend to what you have at heart.
If you’re a lawyer, or just an everyday advocate, you should head these words–no, you should drink them into your very being. Whether in written or spoken form, what we do is a matter of persuasion, of seeking to guide change, and the more we come to master and expand the art of language, the better off we shall become in shaping the world around us. Take heed and govern yourselves accordingly.