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Trial Theme And Structure — A Compelling Story

I recently read an interesting article from a successful appellate lawyer in Alabama, Mike Skotnicki. The article is on his blog. Mike discussed storytelling in appellate briefs. When attorneys think of appellate arguments they often picture a panel of scholarly judges discussing the finer of points of legal issues.

Mike presented an interesting study concerning the impact of storytelling in appellate briefs. In the cited study, a panel of appellate judges was provided two briefs. One brief presented solely logical arguments. The other incorporated a strong storytelling element. Most of the readers found the brief incorporating storytelling to be much more persuasive. I started my career writing appellate briefs. I can say that I probably spent 90% of my brief writing time telling the compelling story presented by the facts and only about 10% of my time making the legal arguments. Real cases involve real people and real problems. Their stories are personal and compelling.

The study cited by Mike considered the impact of storytelling just on appellate judges. However, all of us are hard-wired to be moved by compelling stories.

Too many attorneys view a trial, and especially the opening statement part of the trial, as an opportunity simply to stand up and tell as many facts and events as possible. These attorneys simply state facts with no theme or structure. I call this the “spaghetti” approach. Just throw all the facts against the wall and see what sticks. I’ve watched these “spaghetti” openings and have been left confused as to the real story of the case. I could see the same confusion on the jurors’ faces as well.

On the day you first meet with your client, you need to listen to his story. You need to really listen as your client tells you the story that led him or her to your office. You need to engage your client and ask questions. You should begin thinking of the compelling story that is his or her case.

Trials are about compelling stories. Why are we here? We are here because someone broke the rules causing struggle, injury, or loss in others. If your clients are important to you (and they should be) then you will listen to them and prepare to tell their compelling stories at trial.