Winning Cases With Story

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We’ve heard for decades that lawyers are storytellers, but that goes beyond mere presentation style. Understanding stories can also help you craft a better case strategy.

In a recent interview, Professor Ruth Anne Robbins explained how you can improve your client’s chances by casting characters the way an author or a movie’s casting agent might. If you miscast the roles in your client’s story, you’ll undermine the argument.

With such high stakes, let’s dig into how lawyers can use story principles to improve case strategy.

There’s Only One Story (Sort Of)

As we’ve discussed throughout this Insights series on writing, judges enjoy stories just like everyone else. They read Hamlet, watched the latest Avengers movie, and tell tales over the dinner table. Judges are, after all, people.

But judges also process new information in terms of stories. (Again, like people.) As I always explained to my new clients, judges will quickly place your story in a box of similar stories they already know. The story-box they choose will impact how the judge interprets your case.

As Professor Robbins explained, you can use that to your client’s advantage:

For people who know Joseph Campbell, he says there are only a certain number of stories with a certain number of master characters that walk through a particular arc. Your pitch to the court would depend on what was at stake and where you wanted to fit your client in as one of those models.

When you know the basic story models – the boxes a judge will put your client’s narrative into – you can model your argument accordingly.

A Casting Example: Family Law

Professor Robbins gave the common example of a divorce or custody case to illustrate how this casting of characters works…

There’s a great article by Linda Berger who looked at family law decisions. She found that women in custody cases fit into one of two arcs: either the fallen woman or the caregiving mother.

Either of these roles, Robbins explained, comes with baggage. If you cast your female divorce client as the fallen women character type, you’ll put the judge in the position of needing to rescue her; if you cast her as the caregiving mother, you’re asking the judge to return her to her children. The way you tell the story of each character will determine whether the judge grants your client’s wishes.

As common as those female client clichés are, they aren’t the only options. Casting your client differently may lead to a better outcome.

So, you may want to pitch it in some other way. You’ve got about 12 choices that you can go with and part of the choice you’ll make depends on what was at issue for this client. Was it that she needed rehabilitative support? Was it that she needed custody of her kids? What was really the conflict that was going on?

The judge wants to complete the story you present, in other words. He or she is imagining how it ends. If you miscast your client, the judge may map a path to an ending you didn’t want. That means you’ll need to craft your strategy with the end in mind. Ask what character type seeks the end your client is after, then present the client’s story using the appropriate archetype.

Your Client’s Journey

In many legal cases, your client stands before the judge because he or she has left the path. The client engaged in some kind of aberrant behavior, something out of lockstep with social norms. But that doesn’t have to be a case-killer.

There always will be flaws. There is no story that we like where the person is perfect. That’s a boring story. So it’s what they do despite the flaws or because of the flaws that we’re really interested in. It’s the journey, not necessarily the final resolution.

As Professor Robbins suggested, you don’t have to cast your client as the angel. In fact, that can undermine your case. Better to show your client as a hero on a journey, working through struggles toward a nobler end. The client stands before the judge asking for help to continue that journey.

Embrace your client’s imperfection and encourage the judge to send him or her back on the journey. With a favorable order in tow, like the talisman carried by so many fictional heroes, your client will be back on the road to success.

Careful With the Villain

In the same way that miscasting your client or the judge can hurt your case, you should probably avoid casting the other side of the case as a villain.

The most interesting villains are usually some mirrored version of the hero. Villains are often just one or two choices removed from the star of the show. It’s easy for judges to sympathize with that antihero type.

Instead, once you’ve established a path for your client, consider how other characters get in the way. If you’ve interested the judge in your client’s path, he or she will want to brush those obstacles aside.

Think, for example, of the ultimate trickster: Loki…

Loki is a great example of that. Loki is fairly likable in some of the storylines and there are a lot of reasons you can sympathize with him. There are times when he does act as a good brother, but he’s not fully trustworthy in the way that Thor is more trustworthy. So let’s get this order done so that they can go about, for example, jointly taking care of parents or children or whatever it is.

You should frame every character in your story in a way that leads to the best ending. Opposing parties, witnesses, judges, lawyers… everyone should help your hero client along the path.

When you map out an exciting path for your client, the judge will want to keep the story moving. Figure out how your client’s desires keep the story moving along. If they do and the judge likes the story, you can expect a win.

Want to Learn More about Writing Well?

To see the entire interview with Ruth Anne, check out the video below…

And take a look at the other articles in this series on better writing for lawyers. We’re happy to support the development of good writing habits and would love a chance to explain how you can incorporate Casetext’s AI-enabled research tools to enhance your skills.

Please take a moment to schedule a demo of Casetext’s research tools, and take advantage of our free trial. As you’ll see, we aim to help good lawyers like you improve their craft.