Tag Archives: storytelling

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.

 

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)

Stephen King On Writing–Lawyers Ed.

So why I’m I posting a blog on Stephen King? (Yes, the Stephen King.) Lazy? I’ve already written it for one of my other blogs? I can’t say that’s not a factor, but I have a better response. My premise:

Any source that improves writing benefits lawyers

That’s my justification. That simple. Of course, if you read my review (included–with my permission–in full below), you’ll learn that I found the book entertaining as well as sage. I enjoy King’s voice as well as his advice. If nothing else, if you apply my two favorite tips from the end of the review, you’ve received value for your effort.

One more thing to remember: King has sold around a gazillion books because he tells intriguing stories. We lawyers can’t fabricate our stories, but we can tell those client stories well or poorly, depending on our writing and presenting skills. Taking advise from a master, not just in the mechanics of writing, or in the area of fiction (assuming you not planning a Grisham), but also in the art of telling a story, will prove worthwhile. Enjoy.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • 2 min read
  • original
I owe Stephen King a big, fat apology. For many years, I thought him a horror hack, someone who only writes creepy stuff for the more gullible among us. Of course, doubts crept in over the years. Several movies based on his work, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile (which I saw only about a year and half ago), and Stand by Me were all movies with compelling stories. Some, like The Green Mile, incorporate a fantastic element, but all tell compelling stories about interesting people even without a fantastic element. I was intrigued when I saw that King had written 11.22.63, and I saw that it received good reviews. As you may have read, I gave it a good review, too. So, Stephen King, I’m sorry for typecasting you, which reflects poorly on me and not at all on you. (If you, reader, retain some prejudice against the fantastic in literature, then you won’t count Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or say, Italo Calvino or Garcia Marquez, among your favorite authors. Well, so be it if you insist. Just know that don’t need to go the Fantasy/SF section of the bookstore to find the fantastic.)
So how is this nonfiction book of King’s? Excellent. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is a memoir of his youth and his beginnings as a writer. As someone who, like King, grew up in America in the 50’s and 60’s, I share many of his experiences and cultural references. But King had a tougher start than I did. He was raised by a single mother (dad hit to road when Stephen was about age three), and they never had much money. But Stephen and his brother were bright and inventive. Stephen got into comic books and Tom Swift (“Junior” by Victor Appleton II, like me, or the older ones? He doesn’t say). Like many a writer, illness kept him at home one year (requiring him to repeat a grade) so he read to pass the time. Later Stephen got into horror books and movies. I’m certain he would have watched the ones that I liked to watch on late Saturday nights, like Rodan, the giant Pteranodon that comes out of the mountain and blows down miniature Japanese cities. And I’m sure he’d know the one about the giant Gila monster in the American southwest created by atomic testing. The giant lizard creeps up on teenagers parked in the desert making out, when, just as they getting intimate, the monster strikes. (“That’ll teach ’em!”) Yes, I understand much of the background of Stephen’s cultural upbringing. Now I appreciate some of the sources of his inspiration.

The second section of the book deals with “The Toolbox”: vocabulary, grammar, adverbs (he hates ‘em), and so on. The third part deals with the practicalities of writing and publishing fiction. While not quite as personal or entertaining as the first part, King never loses his sense of humor (which I quite like) or his sense of perspective. King has sold about a gazillion books, but it hasn’t seemed to have gone to his head. He did develop a drug and alcohol addiction, but he made it to the other side. He married his college sweetheart, and they raised a family and now have grandkids. King knows of his good fortune and shares his wisdom freely.

 

If you have any inclination to read a book about writing that’s also entertaining and personal—the not Strunk and White or F.L. Lucas type of book—this is a superb choice. Educational and edifying with some great tips that most any writer can use: cut the adverbs and cut 10% of your initial draft are my two favorite take-aways.

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.