What’s The Story: Guest Post by Professor Danielle Tully

Today, we’re proud to present this guest post by Professor Danielle Tully (@ldtully), who teaches in Suffolk University’s Legal Practice Program.

Nobody answered our knock on the front door, so we walked around to the side door.[1] If anyone recognizes me, they won’t know me for the white woman I was when I boarded the train.[2] But no doubt Mrs. Coulter would help her look for him, and she was bound to have powerful friends who could get him back from wherever he’d disappeared to.[3]

After reading those sentences, your brain likely conjured a variety of images.[4] In fact, your brain started piecing this story together from the first word—even though the sentences weren’t meant to tell a story at all. That’s because they come from three very different novels.

Why do we do this? According to neuroscientists our brains are wired for stories.  Stories evoke strong responses because they tap into memories. Professor Ruth Anne Robbins has likened a narrative’s impact to a pensieve—the magic bowl Harry Potter encounters that enables him to step inside other people’s memories.[5] In the human brain, memories exist in a complicated nested system that is continuously remaking and rearranging itself. These memories evoke strong emotional responses that impact how we understand new information and the decisions we make about it. When writers, both lawyers and novelists, tell stories, they tap into and interact with this system in their audience.[6] 

Storytelling is an essential legal practice skill. When thinking about how to tell your client’s story, consider employing theme, vivid details, and a logical structure to engage the whole brain and make the story stick.

  • Themes provide a familiar overarching framework for your audience. A well-constructed theme provides signposts that enable readers to connect the dots between discrete facts and to make sense of the whole.[7] Themes, however, are not universal: they are audience- and case-specific. Themes also invoke archetypes and stereotypes. Before using a theme, consider how a particular theme may trigger or reinforce beliefs that may be inconsistent with justice and equity.
  • Vivid Details help the audience to conceptualize and remember the story. Including sufficient details enables you to control the narrative and to guide your audience to the result you seek. Just like you began to fill the gaps when you read the first three sentences of this blogpost, your audience will fill any gaps your writing leaves. Crafting a tight narrative with sufficient detail enables you to control the storyline.
  • Structure satisfies the left (logical) brain. Whether telling the story in a brief or to the jury, utilizing narrative structure to set the scene, develop the storyline, and resolve the conflict will keep your audience engaged and on track.

Remember, when asking “what’s the story?” consider the various protagonists that could play a role in the narrative. While sometimes your client’s facts might drive the case, other times focusing on a legal rule or policy argument—rather than the particular details of your client’s story— might better meet your client’s goals. Additionally, your client may not always be a person. Storytelling from an institutional perspective, while possible, raises additional challenges and opportunities.[8]

Finally, employing storytelling tools is not a license to play fast and loose with the facts. Zealous advocacy must always be ethical advocacy, which means that narrative aims must never overshadow a lawyer’s ethical duties including those of truth and candor.

So, whether unpacking and evaluating a legal problem in an objective memorandum or delivering an opening argument to a jury, think about which narrative tools you want to employ to understand and tell your client’s story.

Danielle Tully (@ldtully) is an Assistant Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University Law School.  From Eritrea to the South Bronx, Professor Tully has collected and used stories to advocate for civil rights and social justice. 

[1] Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 101 (1970).

[2] Sherri L. Smith, Flygirl, 192 (2008).

[3] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass, 74 (1995).

[4] This exercise, which I use in my Legal Practice Skills course at Suffolk University Law School is inspired by a similar prompt from Ruth Anne Robbins, Steve Johansen, and Ken Chestek in their book, Your Client’s Story, 42 (2013).

[5] Ruth Anne Robbins et al., Your Client’s Story, 43 (2013).

[6]  Nancy Levit, Legal Storytelling: The Theory and the Practice—Reflective Writing Across the Curriculum, 15 Journal of the Legal Writing Institute 259, 276-77 (2009).

[7]  For more on the use of story and theme, see Kathryn M. Stanchi, The Power of Priming in Legal Advocacy: Using the Science of First Impressions to Persuade the Reader, 89 Or. L. Rev. 305 (2010).

[8] To explore the interplay between storytelling and lawyering further check out the articles contained in this volume of The Second Draft and Applied Legal Storytelling: A Bibliography.

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