Tag Archives: lawyers

Philosophy of History for Lawyers & All via Collingwood

Below is a review of the Principles of History that I wrote for my personal blog. So why include it here? Because Collingwood’s work in the philosophy of history (and historiography) offers insights and reflections on how we make decisions about the past–that is, about almost everything! For instance, a trial is an inquiry into past events. Following is a brief dicussion about what I think Collingwood writes that applies  to persuasion, argument, and judgment.

For Collingwood, historians don’t just blithely accept the testimony (most often written) of witnesses, but they must inquire of it. They must test it. Sound familiar, lawyers? Indeed, Collingwood provides an extended analogy of a detective mystery that might have served as a plot for his contemporary, Agatha Christie. Various witnesses make various statements that they claim are true, but some (or all, to some extent) are lying, mistaken, hiding something, and so on. One must build a case whether one is a historian (going to the time before memory can serve directly to provide information), a lawyer, or a detective. Collingwood argues that the historian should use a question-and-answer template for accessing the evidence. Of course, you don’t have live witnesses (at least not in front of you under oath), but the historian or lawyer does have multiple sources of evidence  to compare and contrast.

Collingwood also emphasizes the role of imagination in formulating a historical narrative. We can’t retrieve all of the facts, sometimes because we simply don’t have the evidence, or sometimes the evidence may prove too voluminous. But we can fill in details–for instance, we can be confident that the underside of a table exists although we cannot see it. (Okay, we could get off our cans and look, but you get the point). So with narratives in litigation: we must fill in blanks, and we test the proposed narratives through the adversarial structure of a trial. A judge or a jury determines, in effect, who has the best story according the criteria of which side provides the most compelling account of what happened in the past as considered in the context of the existing law (including, quite importantly, the standard of proof.

The sampler above gives you some taste of how I believe the Collingwood’s perspectives apply to litigation and persuasion. It’s more than a matter of my long-standing infatuation with history. Collingwood’s well-written and very accessible arguments provide us reasons to think about how we prove (or disprove) a perspective on the past, which is the stuff of litigation and a lot of ordinary life.

My review:

Taking Readings: SNG Thoughts

A reader’s journal sharing the insights of various authors and my take on a variety of topics, most often philosophy, religion & spirituality, politics, history, economics, and works of literature. Come to think of it, diet and health, too!

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Principles of History & Other Writings in the Philosophy of History by R.G. Collingwood

Principles of History cover

Sometimes awe and modesty compel us to brevity where otherwise we’d feel need to blather on at length. This will be a short post, not because the subject doesn’t merit a lengthier treatment. To the contrary, it merits so much more. So I hope that this post is just in the way of a trailer or preview of what I hope in time to consider at more length.

R.G. Collingwood is a late arrival on my radar. In fact, he was probably a part of my undergraduate syllabus in my Philosophy of History course, but he didn’t stick. Now, I’m learning about him, as he keeps popping up, as it were. Last year in India, I bought a copy of The Idea of History, his masterwork, which The Times Literary Supplement selected as one of the most influential books published since the Second World War. But I haven’t read that book yet. So why this book, less famous and published much later?

First, it’s on Kindle, which means that it is accessible to me know (unlike my copies–yes, copies–of The Idea of History now in storage). But perhaps an even better reason—or excuse—for reading this first book comes from the history of the writings themselves.

R.G. Collingwood image

By the late 1930s, Collingwood, then in his early forties, knew that his health was failing. He went on a writing and publication flurry. He’d lectured at Oxford on various occasions in the 1930s about his philosophy of history and historiography. In 1939, during a long cruise intended to bolster his health, he began writing The Principles of History, a companion of sorts to his book The Principles of Art. However, because of his failing health, the advent of WWII, and two other writing projects he wanted to complete, he set the project aside. Death took him in early 1943, with his work about history unpublished in book form. After his death, literary executor, T.M. Knox, brought together several of Collingwood’s writings, including lecture notes, and published them through Oxford University Press as The Idea of History. And as I mentioned, it proved quite a success (at least according the standards of its peer group.) Knox left out some papers, but the source was considered exhausted. Except it wasn’t.

In 1995, archivists at Oxford University Press discovered the (uncompleted) manuscript of The Principles of History that Collingwood has written during his 1939 cruise to Indonesia. They also discovered some papers on other topics as well. The new materials didn’t reveal any startling new positions or arguments made by Collingwood, but they helped to complete his positions and to reveal his overall plan. He’d intended to publish two volumes on the subject of history. The Idea of History covered much of this area, but not all of it, nor in the manner that Collingwood had intended. The Principles of History helps to fill the gaps. Given the depth and significance of Collingwood’s thought, this book provides us with even deeper insights into his unique and compelling ways of thinking about history.

I hope to explore the topic of history and knowledge in depth in a project that I’ve dubbed “history as a way of knowing” (or perhaps history as the way of knowing), which will trace the ideas of Collingwood, Owen Barfield, and John Lukacs and show how their thoughts can inform our thinking. In the meantime, if you’ve any interest in how we think about history and how we judge its fruits, you must read this book

 

 

A Review of Time Warrior: How to defeat procrastination, people-pleasing, self-doubt, over-commitment, broken promises and chaos by Steve Chandler

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
  • original

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.]

 

  • Empty the Mind about the Future because the Future = Fear.
  • Develop a bias for Action
  • Develop a laser-like Focus like Bruce Lee or Rocky Marciano (via Joyce Carol Oats).
    Joyce Carol Joyce Carol OatsOats

    [Yes, you read that correctly. It seems she has a thing about boxing.]

  • Act as a Warrior, not as a Worrier.
  • Keep your Soul alive by not seeking to Please Others. Do what you choose
  • Make Time, don’t expect to Find Time.
  • Thinking makes it so. We act (or refrain) based on our beliefs.
  • Sustain Focus. Avoid Distraction. Use the rifle, not the shotgun.
  • “We use our crayons (our imagination) to scare ourselves instead of to create.” Chandler, Steve (2011-02-14). Time Warrior: How to defeat procrastination, people-pleasing, self-doubt, over-commitment, broken promises and chaos (p. 15). Maurice Bassett. Kindle Edition.
  • Use Process Goals, not big, long-term goals. [Compare Scott Adams of Dilbert fame: use Practices not Goals to create Future.]
  • “Be brief. Be swift. Be effective.” (19).
  • Create Now.
  • “Don’t think in terms of patterns. None of this: “I always” or “I never” because those globalizing thoughts will never serve you. They will scare you and make you a pessimist.” (22).
  • Start small.
  • Slow down.
  • Don’t over value Information. “[I]t is active creation that will produce wealth and well-being. Not information.” (27).
  • Create Value by serving others.
  • Incubation vs. Procrastination. Incubate but Act.
  • “No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.—Alan Watts (30).
    Alan WattsAlan Watts
  • The time warrior steals from the future. Then she pours her stolen gold—all of it—into the present moment.” (30).
  • Don’t Know, Choose. Choosing is the key to Acting.
  • “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life… and that’s why I succeed—Michael Jordan (37).
    MJMichael Jordan
  • “It really isn’t fear of failure that stops us from trying exciting things. It’s fear of the appearance of failure. It’s the fear of looking like a failure.” (37).
  • Theory is good for the intellect, but action is good for the soul. It’s also good for your mental health, your physical health, and your pocketbook.—Robert Ringer (39).
  • Act, then Feel. Not vice versa.
  • Serve, don’t seek to Please.
  • Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.—Rumi (49). [I have to issue a small dissent here. My reading, especially in the morning (preferably after meditation) isn’t a passive act. It’s creative. I don’t just read, I Learn. For me, reading is a very creative activity. Besides, I don’t play a musical instrument & C would kill me if I started singing in the morning.]
  • Change Others through an Inspiring example.
  • Be in the Moment. Don’t cling to an Identity. I’m a . . . [fill in the blank]. You can be that—or more—or less.
  • The question isn’t, Who is going to let me; it’s Who is going to stop me?—Ayn Rand (57). [I haven’t “been Ayn Randed”, but I can’t argue too much with this one thing. See, I’m not going to cling to my identity as knowing her to be full of . . . “well, never mind”.]
  • Create, don’t React.
  • Issue is Problem Management, not Time Management. Deal with a Project or Challenge, not Time.
  • We love to solve problems—if they’re not ours.
  • Problems of Time are often problems of Emotion (Feelings).
  • Complete. Finish strong. Keep a “killer instinct”.
  • Unfinished Projects become Worries that become Energy Vampires!
  • Completion Creates Energy. Procrastination drains Energy.
  • Don’t Feel like doing It? Do It!
  • In the face of suffering, ask “How can I help?”, not “How to do I feel?”.
  • Not “How do I survive this [catastrophe]?”, but “How do I use this?”.
  • Warriors make friends of deadlines, which seem (and sound) so ominous.
  • “The human brain is a magical bio-computer. It sends us energy when we send it something clearly inspiring. But it drags us way down when we feed it something that is negative or depressing. The key to all of this is that we send it.” (88)
  • “The breakdown of language foretells the breakdown of results. Always. . . .[If I don’t keep a commitment] I have misused the word commitment, and language no longer means anything. So now anything I say is just noise that conveys no power at all. My language can no longer make anything happen. It can still be descriptive (it can tell you how I feel, it can describe the past) but it can no longer be generative (it can’t make things happen). . . . [A] commitment is something you keep, no matter what.” (90).
  • What gets measured gets done.
  • Emerson has written many wonderful essays on [acting] and one of the things he said is “Do the thing and you shall have the power.”(110)
  • “Creative people need some kind of structure. . . . Paradoxically, the best creativity comes from working with the most structure you can possibly impose on yourself.” (114).
  • “What do I feel like doing right now? That is the worst question I could ever ask myself during my workday. On a weekend that’s a fine question. “What do I feel like doing? I’ll watch a little baseball, I’ll play the guitar.” That’s fine, but in my workday, the feeling question is the worst question I can ask myself. The best questions are: “What do I want to produce?” and “What structure would guarantee that?”. (115).
  • Create your own Urgent.
  • Skip Willpower and simply Choose to Begin.
  • Begin—to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.—Marcus Aurelius (121).
  • “Why do I want my lack of action to be about a “thing” inside me I don’t have? The answer is this: I would rather find and identify some defect in myself than take that first step. Isn’t that the easier, softer way to live? Identifying flaws and defects all day?” (122). [Pressfield names “the thing”: Resistance. But whether you name it to overcome it or you simple ignore it to overcome it, the only weapon that can work is Action. Do, do, do.]
  • “Whatever it is you are not doing, notice that you are choosing not to do it. There’s no defect in you! There’s the opposite of a defect. There is, instead, a power. A power to choose. Choose to, choose not to, same power. Always power.” (122-123). [My only quibble is that some people fail to recognize that they are making a choice (always making a choice) and therefore don’t exercise the conscientiousness or self-reflexivity necessary to realize what’s going on. I think that this requires a great deal of self-awareness. If not, why would Chandler have to teach this? Why would piles of books have ever been written about the Will and Willpower? (I know because I’ve read a lot of them.) Why would we worry about weakness of will? What if the choice is do or not do, such as whether to eat a Twinkie when you’re hungry? What if “not doing” is the best choice, then the default “Do” will fail us. We see weakness of will (akrasia) all of the time in ourselves and others. We discount the future hyperbolically. We make a choice—and we know damn well that we’ll later regret it. St. Paul and St. Augustine and others after them weren’t addressing a non-existent problem. So, grading as the Chinese might, I’d say Chandler is about 60% right on this issue.]
  • Love what you’re doing, whatever it is. [Can be challenging.]
  • “The perception you have of anything is always what drives your feelings and your actions and your thoughts.” (133).
  • Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.–Vincent van Gogh (141).
    Van GoghVan Gogh
  • Fear is the absence of Love, as dark is the absence of light.
  • “Live Now, Procrastinate Later”: great title (Robert Holden).
  • “I experience a stressed-out feeling whenever I think about the deadline for a creative project. But my stress comes from having that project be in the future. Non-linear time management doesn’t allow that line that stretches into the future. Because the linear thought process always produces stress. Unreasonable stress.” (175).
  • “You can create the future—through process-goal-setting and achievement—without living in the future. Just like studying a map before you go somewhere. Or looking at a menu before the meal. You don’t walk on the map. You don’t eat the menu. Once you’ve created your goal and project you set the future aside.” (182).
  • “All creativity emerges from inquiry.” (188).
  • “Thought always comes before a feeling and causes the feeling.” (196). [A key component of Stoic thought per Richard Sorabji.]
  • Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.—Walter Elliott The Spiritual Life (202).
  • Stop lying to yourself.
    AristotleAristotle
  • Aristotle: “Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it. People come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just. By doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled, and by doing brave acts we become brave.” (206-207).

 

Let’s stop here. Lots of excellent ideas and perspectives. A fine and lasting tonic.

Brain Pickings, Arthur Quiller-Couch, & 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.

David Baldacci on Lawyers: The Best Story Wins

I came across this quote below while reading today. While there is just a bit of hyperbole in what Mr. Baldacci says, it’s not too great. How we tell our clients’ stories makes a lot of difference. Even when we try cases to judges, we have to remember those judges are human and respond to stories like the rest of us. Before they come up with reasons, rationales, and precedents, they develop a gut feeling about the case. They develop gut feelings about the parties and the lawyers. Those gut feelings are affected most deeply by the stories that are told. Sometimes, but not that often, black letter law will win your case, but if the black letter law is that clear, the case probably won’t come to trial. Thus, quite often the story and the characters will have the greatest effect on the decision by the court.

Some of the best fiction I ever came up with was as a lawyer.

You know who wins in court? The client whose lawyer tells better stories than the other lawyer does. When you’re making a legal case, you can’t change the facts. You can only rearrange them to make a story the better enhances your client’s position, emphasizing certain things, deemphasizing others. You make sure the facts that you want people to believe are the most compelling ones. The facts that hurt your case are the ones you either explain away or hideaway. That’s telling a story.

David Baldacci, quoted in Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran (2013) (p.18-19)

Checklists via Atul Gwande’s The Checklist Manifesto

Another older but still pertinent review. Read, enjoy, and apply.

I’ve finished Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (2009, 175 p.). Yes, I read a whole book about the humble checklist. Yet, as one would expect from someone who is a regular New Yorker contributor, it’s very well written. The basic premise is simple: with increasingly complex undertakings, no person can keep the necessary mental notes needed to do everything that must be done when it should be done. This includes surgeons and their staff, airline pilots, contractors, and yes, even lawyers. (I give myself credit for professional reading on this one.) Gawande gives us a tour of how something as complex as a skyscraper gets built, and built right. He takes us to Boeing to see how simple checklists operate airplanes and save lives. He also takes us into surgery with him and his peers to see how they deal with these problems. Many of his accounts, especially of surgical and airline emergencies, are fascinating and scary. His own challenges getting a working checklist into his O-R makes for interesting reading as well. In sum, it’s a short, fascinating account of how a simple, rather old-fashion device can do a lot of good. Cooks use them all the time: they call them recipes.

The Importance of Empathy (Lawyers Ed.)

While Oscar Wilde makes us think of the importance of being earnest in his comedy of manners, Brene Brown goes beyond earnest to the much greater challenge of being empathic. It’s not easy.

What relevance has this for lawyers? We lawyers have to work with people. If the truth be told, for all our vaunted ability to reason and write, it’s our people skills, our ability to convince by persuasion, which sets outstanding lawyers apart. And the deepest connections come through empathy. But there’s a catch: in order to act empathetically, we have to remain vulnerable, exposed. Ay, there’s the rub. For what self-respecting lawyer, especially one engaged in the slings and arrows of litigation, wants to reveal vulnerability and all that it entails?

What we often opt for instead is sympathy, which is quite different from empathy. Sympathy, according to Brown, disconnects us from the Other, while empathy draws us together with a person. Empathy is fellow feeling; sympathy is “That’s too bad. Now please take it away.” Empathy requires commitment and revelation; sympathy does not.

I can immediately think of two areas where we lawyers should practice empathy. First, with our clients. Think of the husband or wife who has to come in about a divorce, the parent of a child hauled into juvenile court, or the family that’s lost a loved one because of an act of negligence. How to we respond to them? It’s tough. Most clients want someone to serve as their champion, not a shoulder to cry upon. Yet, at least after a while, I think that they like to know that a human being and not a litigating cyborg represents them. (Corporations, however, may prefer litigating cyborgs.) For instance, if a client becomes involved in some form of litigation, the bad news won’t end soon. (Just the thought of a lawsuit is bad enough). Questions and doubts, hard decisions, fears and anxieties, all are likely to surface and require attention. The lawyer must balance empathy while not losing the professional judgment and demeanor that will merit a reasonable (but not absolute) degree of client confidence. It’s a fine line to walk.

The other arena in which lawyers can apply empathy is with our fellow practitioners. Let me ask this: Is there a more shitty feeling than having lost a jury trial that you know you should have and could have won? I have a hard time thinking of worse times, and I’ve suffered through more of these than I care to remember. (Adverse written decisions aren’t much better, but they seem just a bit less of a punch in the gut.) I’ve greatly appreciated calls from colleagues after a loss, those who’ve suffered similar fates at times in their careers. It doesn’t make it all better, but you do have a sense of a bit less loneliness in your misery, which certainly helps. Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat none. But at least you can have some who can mourn with you over your failure.

Without further ado, here’s the website for the Brene Brown piece. She’s a very engaging speaker, and I must also recommend this site to you. Brain Pickings blog, from which this post is taken (recommended reading)  provides high quality and consistent content on a number of topics that lawyers and others will find interesting.

 

Why Did I Go Freelance? (Or Should I Say “Rogue”?)

For those who don’t know me, you may wonder why, after 29 years of practice (in Iowa City), did I decide to leave my practice and now begin freelance lawyering? The personal answer is that my wife and I decided we wanted to do some adventuring before we became too old to have the yen to do so. We wanted more than just tourism; we wanted to experience living in a different country. Anyway, that’s the short form. This article tells why, in more abstract terms, someone like me with  an established practice would leave it and begin working freelance. In a word: Freedom. The article explains it well.

 

David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell: Strategy for Underdogs

This review that I wrote earlier qualifies here for at least two reasons:

  • It deals with conflict, and like it or not, we all engage in conflicts daily. For lawyers, any lawsuit, from a breach of contract to a dissolution of marriage to a personal injury claim, involves conflict. We all have to consider our relative powers,  abilities, and weaknesses. How can the underdog change the game, take advantage of a weakness, or alter the playing field? Gladwell addresses these issues.
  • Gladwell features a chapter on David Boies, one of the premier litigators in the U.S. Boies “secret” is simple yet profound.

Let me ask you a series of questions:

Can a team with only mediocre offensive skills and limited physical gifts regularly beat teams that are more talented?

Are larger classes sometimes better for learning than smaller ones?

Might an accomplished young woman interested in science find career success by attending a state university instead of the Ivy League school that admitted her?

Might a guy with dyslexia (a serious disorder that affects reading ability) do well in a legal career?

Can a physician with a very troubled youth develop a breakthrough protocol for treating a fatal childhood disease by ignoring colleagues and forcing patients (and parents) to push through the pain?

Can an oppressed minority gain rights and dignity through tricking the oppressor into dumb moves?

Can the campaign of a heart-broken father to limit crime after the murder of his daughter backfire into promoting more crime?

Can forgiveness provide a stable and fulfilling way of responding to horrific loss?

Can a small group of dissenters thumb their noses at Vichy and Nazi officials and openly harbor Jews, saving them from internment and death?

Can David beat Goliath?

If you’ve ever read any Malcolm Gladwell, you will know that the counter-intuitive answers to some of these questions are Gladwell’s answers. Gladwell opens his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by explaining how David’s victory over Goliath was not so great an upset as we’ve come to believe. David, as an expert with the sling (not an unusual talent in that time), held a real advantage over the armor-clad, pituitary case (Goliath) that he faced. Like the game of rock-scissors-paper, each strategy entails an effective counter-strategy. So a girls basketball team, coached by an Indian immigrant father with no basketball experience, used the unorthodox strategy of an aggressive full-court press to win games and go the national tournament. (Gladwell journeys into basketball lore to describe the education of Rick Pitino about the value of the press. I must add that the press is under-utilized still. I loved it.) If you don’t have rocks, use paper

As Gladwell often does in his writing, he weaves insights from social science into real life tales, and in doing so, he challenges the easy assumptions we tend to make. In two segments involving education, he challenges a couple of common assumptions, assumptions that cost a lot of money and that have very serious repercussions. First, he explores the assumption that smaller class size always improves student achievement. Gladwell finds that class size, like many things in life, has a sweet spot—a Goldilocks point—that is neither too large nor too small. In smaller classes, there may not be enough variety to facilitate a desired give-and-take for discussion and projects. Thus, the class never reaches its full learning potential. Gladwell concludes (and I intuitively agree) that outstanding teachers are the key to educational success, not simply more teachers. Rather than paying outstanding, experienced teachers to retire early to hire some additional new, untested teachers, we should work to keep outstanding teachers working as long as possible. (Yes, I’m thinking of C, for an example, although she’s still working.)

Another very interesting point involving education addresses the issue of college choice. Gladwell uses the instance of a young high-school student interested in science who goes to Brown (an Ivy) rather that her home-state University of Maryland. Because of the intense competition and high-skills range, Gladwell’s young woman abandons science as her major. She tried to make it as a big fish in a big pond, but as statistics show, this is tough. Those who succeed tend to be those who succeed in comparison to their peers in a particular environment, whether at State U or an Ivy League college. For young people making excruciating decisions about where to go to study or where to go to continue playing a sport, this is vital information. (Of course, the Ivy League works well for some, as I know a couple of Ivy League grads whom I think have done quite well.

Another tale that interested me especially was that of David Boies, one of the premier trial and appellate lawyers in the nation. Boies has dyslexia, which makes reading very difficult. To compensate, he learned to learn by listening—listening very carefully. Boies didn’t go to college until a bit later in life. He ended up graduating from Yale Law. (I guess his Ivy League choice worked out okay, too.) One strategy he used in law school was to read the synopsis of a case rather than a whole opinion (a lesson there, I think). And he listened—very carefully. (I suspect that careful listening is a skill that most of us, including lawyers—or especially lawyers?—too often fail to practice.) Boies chose litigation as a field because it didn’t require as much reading as corporate law would have. (Still, there’s still plenty to read in litigation.) Interestingly, unlike most lawyers, Bois doesn’t read for pleasure, either, reporting that he only reads about a book a year. Boies learned to compensate for his disadvantage and by doing so, cultivated skills that allowed him to rise to the top of his field.

From the list of questions at the beginning of my review, you can discern some of the other topics Gladwell addresses. Gladwell has mastered this genre. Gladwell, along with Michael Lewis, Daniel Pink, and a few others, has learned how to weave nonfiction narrative into social scientific insights in a manner that is both instructive and entertaining. Gladwell’s counter-intuitive insights and arguments challenge us to consider what things may not work the way that we easily assume they do.

Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart

This is a review (newly edited) that I posted a while ago on my older blog, which has served as my “go to” blog since I began blogging. I have some relevant materials there that I’ll share here as well. I believe that the contents of my original blog will explain why I think that it’s relevant to this blog. For a comparison, look at this review from Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD.

The art of telling an effective story, whether as a matter of fiction or of non-fiction, has become increasingly celebrated and promoted as the most effective means of communicating a message. Wherever we turn for advice about communicating effectively, we are told about the power of story or narrative (if you prefer the more hifalutin term). The reasoning is simple: we seem programed to remember stories that are tales across time involving characters who engage us in their quests.

Jack Hart is a professional journalist who describes the skills needed to write an effective non-fiction story for a newspaper or magazine. The book provides a number of tips and explanations about how good stories come to be written. But he also includes consideration of the usefulness of communicating other than by narrative, such as by explanation. However, the stories that Hart’s colleagues have written on a wide variety of topics have enhanced their effectiveness (and one assumes their readership) by use of a strong narrative line. The elements, when you reflect upon them, seem almost self-evident: characters (persons that we can care about and understand), a conflict or obstacle that present the characters a challenge, change through time (a narrative arc), and a well-researched facts. Like lawyers, journalists have a professional ethical obligation to “tell the truth”, as problematic has that statement always is. Both professions require us to ground our narrative in some sense in “what really happened”, perhaps easier for journalists because they don’t (or least shouldn’t) work for self-interested clients. One of the points that Hart rightfully addresses includes the ethics of required for appropriate truth telling.

Who might enjoy this book? Anyone who might want to tell a story, fiction, or non-fiction. (In truth, the fundamentals are not so different and Hart draws in a number of sources that originally addressed issues of fiction and play writing.) However, I read it from the point of view of a lawyer, an attorney, an advocate. I’m convinced more and more that our first job as an advocate is to learn and then tell our clients’ stories in a comprehensible and engaging manner. In some cases the law may prove an insurmountable road block to a remedy, but in most cases, especially any case that requires a trial or hearing to resolve the issues, telling the clients story, and thereby making the client and the client’s plight as sympathetic as possible, is the most important aspect of representation. Lawyers don’t write essays about “why my client should win” in “25 words or less”, but our briefs come close to allowing us to do that (and considering the “25 words or less” isn’t a bad idea either). As advocates, attorneys need to become as literate in telling a story as we are in forming an argument (which, of course, may incorporate storytelling). We especially face issues with younger jurors and lawyers who have a more native mastery of visual storytelling that older, logocentric lawyers like me lack. If the book has one weakness, it’s that it is limited to telling stories through the written word. Oral and visual storytelling must gain a place in the advocate’s arsenal as well as the use of the more traditional written word.

A fine book, well considered and well written (not for the most part in storytelling mode, I might add) that most anyone with curiosity about this topic would enjoy.