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The Art Of Story-Telling Is The Essence Of Good Lawyering

Abhishek Chakravarty
19 Jun 2020 11:30 AM GMT
The Art Of Story-Telling Is The Essence Of Good Lawyering

To be truly persuasive, don’t just write a brief; tell a story instead.

Technical mastery of the law is important and knowing the facts is very essential. But a good brief, like a good detective story, requires a compelling narrative, a roadmap and the effortless synching of the wind-up and the pitch. Simply put, a good brief must comprise a persuasive story. It is often said, good lawyers have an ability to tell good stories. Much of what lawyers do in a court-room while presenting a case is a form of storytelling. Storytelling here should not be mistaken with the – fairy tales we grew up listening to as kids. Legal storytelling unlike other popular forms of storytelling is hard-bound by facts. Lawyers are ethical and truthful storytellers; imagination is informed, shaped, and limited by evidence. The lawyers' voice and persona are different; the rules of, and constraints upon, formal legal storytelling are explicit and unlike those of other popular storytellers.[1] Further, lawyers often do not tell complete stories, typically leaving it to others (judges, juries, decision makers) to complete the tales and inscribe codas of meaning.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have relied on stories to pass on information and knowledge. Even in the Bible, Jesus Christ passed on the word of God through stories. Stories are one of the primary ways whereby humans understand situations. People remember events in story form. Stories illuminate diverse perspectives; they evoke empathic understanding; and their vivid details engage people in ways that sterile legal arguments do not.[3] To simply put, people are more moved by stories than just legal theories.

Therefore, storytelling becomes an essential method of legal practice, teaching, and thought. Even, in the days of the classical Greek orators who were lawyers, telling stories was a primary technique for practicing law.[4] However, the art of storytelling may not be as simple as it may seem. Each story must have a powerful and well-defined architecture or structure but this structure must not be made evident or explicit to the listener or reader. The verisimilitude is crucial to effective storytelling and the audience must not be distracted by the technical crafts applied by the teller.

Now the question is – how does a lawyer tell a "good"— effective, purposeful and persuasive, compelling and factually meticulous, and truthful story? To many it may seem like storytelling is an art, which only a few blessed with such artistic capabilities can perform. But it is not usually true. The art of storytelling can also be mastered as a skill through several techniques. Unfortunately, the law school curriculum, directs very little towards developing storytelling skills among students. One prime reason behind this is the belief that these skills are intuitive and cannot be taught.

Although, there is no specific paint-by-the-numbers formulae for effective storytelling, but there are certain basic techniques and discrete elements and components. First of all, make a mind map of the storyline – scene, casts/characters, plot, time frame and human plight/emotions - the main ingredients of your story (which must align with the facts and evidences of the case). Next, understand and know your audience i.e. the judge (also jury in certain legal systems). Some judges might appreciate humour or emotions in your story, some may not! Great lawyers make the judges (or jurors) well imagine the story and feel related to it. Third, be very specific about the details in your facts. Your description of details must be able to paint a picture in the mind of the judge. If you have watched or read, The Great Gatsby, you must have realised how intricately Fitzgerald describes Gatsby's shirts, or his mansion or his parties. These details sold the story. Fourth, always stick to the central theme of your story, use points to emphasize on the theme and remember what you want out of the proceeding.

These are some of the very basics of legal storytelling. It will take an entire course to turn budding lawyers/law students into masters of legal storytelling. It is however unfortunate that most law schools are not even teaching the basics of it, let alone any mastery in the skill. But on the brighter side, in India certain programmes like the Daksha Fellowship recognised this need and made legal storytelling an integral part of its curriculum.

Still, most lawyers struggle to learn – how to present their case as a story and make it persuasive. Many learn from several years of experience, many don't. If the techniques of storytelling are taught in law schools, it will empower young lawyers, enhance their creativity and bring forth many captivating arguments in courts across the country.

Abhishek Chakravarty teaches at Daksha Fellowship in Chennai. His area of specialisation is Environmental Law. The author's views are personal.


[1] Meyer, P., 2014. Storytelling For Lawyers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Massaro, Toni Marie, 1989, "Empathy, Legal Storytelling, and the Rule of Law: New Words, Old Wounds?" Michigan Law Review Vol. 87. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2584194

[4] Levit, Nancy, 2009, "Legal Storytelling: The Theory and the Practice – Reflective Writing Across the Curriculum", The Journal of the Legal Writing Institute Vol. 15, p. 262. Available at - https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1144797

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