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.