Storytelling for Lawyers

By Philip N. Meyer

Date of Publication: 2014

209 pages


What Is This Book About?

In Storytelling for Lawyers by Philip N. Meyer, readers are walked through the importance of storytelling in their careers and are given specific instructions on how to capably explain a chain of events to judges and juries so that they are able to understand them.

What Did I Like About the Book?

The author of this book, Philip N. Meyer not only teaches criminal law and torts, but he also teaches law and film, and law and popular culture. So, I thought it was really thought provoking when Meyer said the work and professional role of a trial lawyer is “specifically akin” to that of a movie director.[1] Within the introduction of this book he states, “[e]ffective litigators, like Hollywood directors and screenwriters, typically storyboard evidence into clear and purposeful plots.”[2] Throughout the book, Meyer uses examples from famous movies to explain how they effectively, or ineffectively, tell their story and relay a message to their audience. He notes, however, a key difference between a trial lawyer and a movie director. At the end of a movie, or when the director has finished “telling their story,” the audience’s job is over. That’s it – there’s nothing else for them to do. At the end of a trial, once the trial lawyer has finished “telling their story,” their audience’s job has just begun, and a trial lawyer has to call on their audience to now make a decision.

Another thing I enjoyed about this book was Meyer’s discussion of themes. In our last book review for On the Jury Trial by Thomas M. Melsheimer and Judge Craig Smith, we learned about how the theme is when your case is reduced all the way down to one simple sentence. It’s cool to see these concepts when bouncing from book to book because we are really gaining a foundation of importance in our advocacy skills. In Storytelling for Lawyers, Meyer called the theme a “controlling idea or core insight of a story.”[3]

Finally, a third thing I liked about Storytelling for Lawyers was when Meyer discussed the usual perspective that a prosecutor uses when telling their story. The book states, “[t]he prosecutor in a contrast of competing stories (in trial, on appeal, or in a post-conviction brief) strategically employs an omniscient perspective affirming an apparent and indisputable “objective” truth.”[4] He writes how prosecutors tell an unembellished version of the story with a no-nonsense rhythm and style of just the facts, and then discusses how this strategy works for them. It makes their legal storytelling so strong because the prosecutor comes across as an omniscient narrator who is informed, unbiased, and trustworthy – therefore, making their story believable.

What Didn’t I Like About the Book?

While I did like that Meyer used examples from famous movies to open discussion about effective storytelling, I didn’t like how some of the movies I had not seen. I almost wish this book came with a little warning on the back that included all the movies he referenced, so that I could have made sure I had watched them beforehand. He does include a little synopsis of the movies, and he explains them well, so they are clear, but I felt a little detached from the book at some points having not seen the movies before.

What Did This Book Teach Me About Advocacy?

In my Trial Advocacy class during the spring semester of my second year, my professor, Jared J. Hatcliffe, posed us with a question: what is more important – an advocate’s form or substance? This book dives into that exact same topic as well. Each chapter begins with a quote, and one of the quotes I really liked was, “Somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so telling as the telling itself. ­– Henry Miller, Reflections on Writing in the Wisdom of the Heart”[5] Meyer reminds us that it’s not WHAT you’re saying that is so important, but HOW you’re saying it. He then leads us through discussion of Gary Spence’s closing in the Silkwood case, covered later in this piece, and how the audience for his closing was captivated by the power and confidence of just Spence’s voice alone.

Another thing I learned through this book involved style as well. Meyer spends time talking about how it is not a coincidence that lawyers purposefully embody the voice, rhythms, and stylistic conventions of the “hard-boiled” detective mystery story in many criminal appellate briefs. He wrote, “[t]he style invites readers to dig beneath the surface of the language and solve the unsolved or wrongfully solved puzzles of meaning.”[6] This made me think back to when he was comparing trial attorneys to movie directors, and the large difference he found between the two – how, as trial lawyers, we hand the microphone over to the jury and let them have a voice. I think this goes to the central theme of this book and why storytelling is so important for a trial lawyer. We must continue making things that are uninteresting, interesting, in order to keep our juries paying attention so that in the end they will hopefully find in our favor.

Lastly, this book taught me about the concepts of scenes and summaries, which is a topic I don’t necessarily think I have learned about. When you’re telling a story, a scene is defined in the book as, “constructed from shots that then, in turn are built into compositions or sequences of scenes and then acts”[7] and “events are typically clearly displayed, formed into visual images.”[8] Summaries are the opposite – “language summarizes and encapsulates events, compressing images”[9] and “particularity is lost or blurred as events are sped up over time.”[10] While I know both scenes and summaries happen when someone is telling a story, I had not put much thought into it before. Meyer talked about when you might use one, over the other, and how in legal briefs and written legal stories, summaries are preferred over scenes because there is a great deal of information to convey to the reader, and although much of it is important, it is not sufficiently important enough to warrant an entire scene.

How Am I Going to Be Able to Be a Better Advocate Because of This Book?

At one point, when conducting an analysis of the closing argument Gary Spence delivered in the Silkwood case, Meyer notes that during the closing Gary Spence is intertwining two different plots. He is telling the past-tense story of what happened in the case, but he is ALSO reciting the present-tense story of the trial itself. This is an incredible concept that trial attorneys have to master in order to deliver a successful closing argument. We must be able to tell a past-tense story of what happened to our client, but a present-tense story of the trial and the evidence that was presented, or for the defense, the lack thereof. At one point Meyer wrote, “the legal storyteller will stop the narrative and step outside the story, purposefully zigzagging from the story to the theory of the case to reveal specifically how a particular sequence of the narrative event satisfies specific elements of legal theory and the case.”[11]

I think trial advocacy is a lot of reflecting on how other people do or say things and then incorporating that into your own style. So, I wanted to end with including a piece of Gary Spence’s closing that Meyer included in his book. Spence said:

It’s the longest case in Oklahoma history, they tell me. And before the case is over, you will know, as you probably already know, that this is probably the most important case as well…. [A]nd it’s the most important case of my career. I’m standing here talking to you not about the most important things I have ever said in my life. And, I have a sense that I have spent a lifetime, fifty years to be exact, preparing somehow for this moment with you.[12]

I found this excerpt to be so powerful. First, I love how Gary Spence was so candid with his audience, and I’m sure that made the jury find him personable and want to not only hear but trust in what he was saying. And second, it’s true, every time we get in front of a jury, we technically have been preparing our entire lives for that moment. Now, I was never that kid who knew from a very young age I wanted to be a lawyer, that isn’t what I mean here. But even just learning how to public speak in general, learning how to think analytically, reading comprehension skills – everything, has all led to this moment, right here in front of the jury, telling our story.

[1] Philip N. Meyer, Storytelling for Lawyers, 6, 2014.

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 16.

[4] Id. at 152.

[5] Id. at 1.

[6] Id. at 120.

[7] Id. at 126.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 64.

[12] Id. at 32.