Tips for Lawyers on Persuading Through Storytelling

Tips for Lawyers on Persuading Through Storytelling (New York, NY), July 10, 2012


Most lawyers could do with an intensive remedial course in “Once upon a time.” The longer they have practiced law, the more they probably need it.

A lawyer’s job is to persuade, which is not possible without some type of human connection. Story is the way humans connect, meet and get to know each other.

Assuming lawyers even recognize the importance of story in creating an empathic listener, they appear to be working hard to avoid that connection. All sorts of habits and tics from law school or the professional culture impose the death sentence on a good story. Here are a couple.

1. Dates. The date is not the story. The event is the story. The only important thing is proximity. The event happened before some things in the plot, at the same time as other events, and after others.

But lawyers write as if the dates are the story. Pick a summary judgment motion or pleading at random. Paragraph after paragraph begins, “On Jan. 24, 2009, an event happened that you no longer care about or remember because I put a date at the beginning of the sentence, and you don’t know whether the date is important or how the event fits in.”

Tell the story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Don’t take up the reader’s short-term memory with dates. Instead, tell the reader what happened “next,” “four days later,” “two years earlier” or “that same day.”

2. Obscuring people’s names. If the client’s name is not particularly evocative, or if similar names exist in the story of the suit, a lawyer can name the client-character he represents for its structural position in the dispute. For example, in a recent dispute between a purchaser, a seller and a bank involving a sale of goods and a letter of credit, the trial lawyers named all three parties by inscrutable sets of initials. The result was that every filing had at least three inscrutable sets of initials for the trial court to re-learn and keep straight. Why not “the buyer,” “the seller” and “the bank”?

Structural labels not only keep the parties distinct but also make their position in the dispute crystal clear for the reader. The object is to get the court to understand the dispute and care about the client. This will not occur if the court must consult a glossary or a scorecard just to know who the players are.

Nobody knows the names of the three bears, and it does not matter. The story turns on the structural pieces: a mama bear (hereinafter “MB”), a papa bear (hereinafter “PB”) and a baby bear (“BB”), hereinafter collectively referred to as “the Three Bears.”

Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Don’t sound stupid. The prose you save could be your own.

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