Legal storytelling is a technique that weaves a compelling narrative from dry, legal facts. Lawyers use their legal storytelling skills to persuade judges and juries, win cases, and satisfy clients.
Narrative skills also come in handy when lawyers, legal scholars, and law students want to learn case law, remember pertinent facts, or understand precedent.
What Is Legal Storytelling?
Legal storytelling presents facts and arguments in a narrative arc intended to persuade listeners to believe a client's, lawyer's, or scholar's interpretation of events.
Storytelling, with its connotations of fairytales, romance, mystery, and legend, might seem like a strange legal technique. But consider: Have you ever referred to someone as a cowboy or a lone wolf or a diva or a wicked witch? Do you speak in terms of good guys and bad guys? Have you perfected a pitch by practicing your cadence, repeating certain details, highlighting certain accomplishments? Then, whether you're aware of it or not, you have participated in a bit of legal storytelling.
And that would be a good thing, according to law professors and legal professionals who are advocates of storytelling as a means to learn the law and to become a better lawyer. As U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts once said, "Every lawsuit is a story."
The prominence of legal storytelling got a boost in 2007 when the Legal Writing Institute (LWI) held its first Applied Legal Storytelling Conference at City Law School in London.
How Does Legal Storytelling Work?
"Storytelling" may seem an odd tool for a profession focused on activities like drafting a contract, proposing a regulation, writing a will, researching case law, crafting a legislative provision, or writing up a brief. But in an era when law schools seek to churn out practice-ready graduates, it makes sense to use narrative techniques to help students understand the law and develop better communication and analytical skills.
In the same vein, a lawyer who is drafting a will is likely to rely on a fair amount of boilerplate, but they will also need to ask the client a number of questions about their life, goals, and plans. In gathering all of this information, the lawyer will be learning the client’s story.
Types of Legal Storytelling
In learning about the law, we condense precedent to pertinent details. We are telling ourselves stories about what happened to help us understand the outcome of court decisions. When we refer back to precedent but distinguish elements of a matter before us, we are looking at all of the details in one older story and comparing them to our current one.
We use stories to help us remember the law or the facts in a matter. We use stories to foster understanding of complicated subjects like science or patent infringements. We use stories to teach clients who need to be educated and to persuade judges and jurors.
As lawyers, of course, we also use stories to persuade clients to sign on, opponents to settle, judges and jurors to vote in our favor. If pitching a prospective client, we might be thinking in terms of an elevator speech—what we can say quickly to grab attention, to inspire confidence, to impress, to get someone to buy our services.
The very persona that we embrace when we are working may be something of a character in a story: the disheveled but brilliant litigator, the bow-tie-wearing champion of righteous causes, the mingling-with-the-stars high-end divorce attorney, the earnest but youthful and attractively priced generalist. In getting business, we are inserting that character into a tale that’s our own.
How to Tell a Good Legal Story
A story is not merely made up of characters and events. Telling a story requires more than just putting one fact in front of another. You'll need:
A storyline. Are you doing what journalists call a tick-tock story, one that is essentially a chronology? Which facts are you incorporating into your piece, and which details are you dismissing as not relevant and not sufficiently colorful to move the narrative forward? Will you be using a bit of foreshadowing? Will you be trying to make your characters sympathetic? What is the action? Is it a car accident or the long, painful recovery afterward? Does your story start with a shocking crime and then retreat in time and build up to the ultimate betrayal?
Knowledge of your audience. How you structure your story, the elements you include, and the techniques you employ to engage your audience depend on who that audience is. Should you be seeking to persuade only a judge to rule in your favor, you might tell the story in a different way than you would if you were seeking to win over a jury.
A sense of how your story will be presented. Will it be buried in a complaint or an appellate brief after a whole lot of procedural stuff? How will you make your story stand out, catch the eye of the reader, engage that reader, interest that reader, and begin to lead that reader down a path toward empathy for your client? Will you be telling this story in the context of a negotiation, where others may be sharing different variations of this story?
- Legal storytelling creates a narrative from facts. Lawyers use this technique to learn, educate, and persuade.
- In recent years, some law professors have advocated legal storytelling as a way to become a better lawyer.
- To tell a good legal story, look beyond facts and events. Pay attention to storyline, audience, and timing.