Tag Archives: narrative

Storytelling for Lawyers by Philip N. Meyer

Storytelling for Lawyers cover

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.

 

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.