The Legal Advocate

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August Theme: A Guide to Crafting your Story in Court

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written by Mark Caldwell NITA’s Director of Resources

Remember how you saw the world before you went to law school? That view was far different from your view of the world today. Sometime in your first or second year of law school you began to think and speak as a lawyer. You ceased to see the world in multi-hues and it became black and white. This starkness allowed you to apply facts to the law and reach a legal conclusion. Think about your frame of mind when you first hear about a case – before you perform a legal analysis of the case and begin structuring your potential claims, defenses and motions. This is when you hear your client’s pure story of the events that occurred in a persuasive form. You are either persuaded to take up the client’s cause by that story, or you reject it because you are not persuaded.

Our training and experience in legal analysis is essential to building or defending a case. In getting ready for trial this process often hinders our ability to communicate persuasively and making a case memorable to judges, juries, and others we need to persuade. What we need to do as lawyers is to convert our legal analysis back to its purist form of story. It needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and ending. Parties and witnesses, including experts, need to be introduced as characters which illustrate a central conflict and offers a fair solution.

We sometime confuse case story with other advocacy concepts. Your case story is not just a theme – such as “A man’s word is his bond.” Too often we select a theme that resonates but fails to present the facts in a persuasive fashion. A case story is not the legal theory. For example, a child is neglected or dependent if: the child lacks proper care, through the actions or omissions of the parent. This may hint at a story, but it is not a very good one. Likewise, a case story is not just a tag line – “This is a story of a promise; a promise made and a promise broken.” Instead, think of your case story in the same way that historian Ian Toll describes writing about history as an “episodic narrative, picking key episodes to write about that, in their composite, provide an accurate portrait of what happened, without bogging down in too much minutiae….”

In crafting your own case story it may be helpful to think in the terms taught to fledgling authors. You can translate common components of good story writing to trial. Your case theme is akin to the Premise Line of a story. A Premise Line tells the listener, “What is your case about?” When properly conceived, your premise expresses your whole story in one or two neat sentences. Let me give you an example from the movies – A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army. It is your “elevator speech” that defines your protagonist (your client), shows the antagonist (the opposing party), offers a sense of setting, conflict, and stakes, and hints how the action plays out. It is not what some think of as the “grabber” that starts your opening statement.

Next comes the Designing Principle or what lawyers may think of as the theme. This is what organizes your story as a whole and makes it hang together instead of a lose series of facts. Your Designing Principle suggests how and where you will begin your story – is it a chronology or a topic driven revelation of the facts that complete the legal elements.

Every story, including trial stories, has a Central Conflict that shows the harm done to your client. It also reveals the remedy or equitable solution that will make things fair and right.

Each case has parties and witnesses. These are the Characters who populate your case story. Some will be fully fleshed out individuals who you spend time accrediting while others will be flat characters who serve a purpose but do not need a full development to be credible. Here is a flat character example – the police officer who first arrived on the scene of a crime but did not conduct the full investigation. He is important to the story but not someone who defines the story.

Finally, you must understand and develop your Plot, or the factual theory of your case. These are the facts that fill in the elements to prove you have met the burden of the proof. Your organic plot must show that each event is causally connected; that each event must be essential (not facts that clutter with useless information); that is proportionate in its length and pacing; and has a sequence that has a unity and totality of effect. Your plot structure gives you the map on how you call witnesses, introduce exhibits, and have the story play out in a persuasive manner.

Changing your thinking from black and white legal theorist to storyteller brings color back to your cases, it makes the facts more memorable, provides a reason to feel good about the decision, and persuades in the way that maintains attention – just as story has done throughout history.

About Mark S. Caldwell

Mark S. Caldwell is NITA's Director for Specialty Programs. In this role Mr. Caldwell designs, administers and serves as an instructor for programs in bankruptcy litigation, child advocacy, and tax litigation. Other programs included under the Specialty Programs banner include NITA's work with other organizations for co-sponsored programs and many of NITA's pro bono courses. His role in NITA's pro bono efforts includes serving as Program Director for many of NITA's courses for lawyers and advocates who represent under-served communities, including Native American lay advocates, legal services lawyers, lawyers and advocates who represent those living with disabilities and the elderly, lawyers and advocates who appear in cases involving children, and lawyers who work in public service positions. In addition to his involvement in these courses, Mr. Caldwell also serves as NITA's Program Director for the Basic Trial Skills and Deposition Programs in Colorado. He is also an instructor at many of NITA's Teacher Training Programs.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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