Legal storytelling

Legal storytelling

An essential aspect of effective communication is making often dry or complex topics resonate with your intended audience. To get people not just to understand information, but to “take it in” and relate to it on a psychological and intellectual level. A powerful way to do this is through storytelling. This is something the best lawyers have always done, but it has gained popularity as a scholarly topic in recent years.

Once upon a time, the popular imagination relegated storytelling to the realm of fiction, or at most, journalism. It’s often associated with imaginary concepts, fantasy worlds, and—at its worst—lies and propaganda. For these reasons and more, legal storytelling provokes different reactions in the legal community, with strong supporters and detractors of this communication technique on either side, each with compelling arguments.

So, let’s explore the role that storytelling can play in law, from helping judges deliver judgments that set the tone and, at times, even win over the public with their rulings. And for lawyers, who can use storytelling to craft persuasive arguments, challenge deep-set prejudices, or navigate a range of social and cultural sensitivities.

What is legal storytelling?

The concept of storytelling is a buzzword in many communications and marketing circles, and it’s also gaining traction in law. Yet legal storytelling is nothing new. It’s perhaps most familiar in criminal law but has always had a place in all kinds of legal settings.

There are many ways to define storytelling, but in the legal context, it is the use of emotional, metaphorical language to turn a series of events into a meaningful narrative. A narrative that skillfully summarises complex information to make the desired outcome seem logical and compelling.

Example of legal storytelling

As a legal translator and editor, I’m delighted when I come across examples of storytelling in law. A popular technique is using humour to help reframe a situation, as the judge used in Mattel’s attempt to sue Aqua for trademark infringement in their hit song Barbie Girl. Judge Alex Kozinski memorably said, “If this were a sci-fi melodrama, it might be called Speech-Zilla meets Trademark Kong”, adding, “the parties are advised to chill” in response to escalating tensions between Mattel and MCA records. 

By using a humorous reference to other famous stories (the ongoing saga of the Godzilla and King Kong franchises), the judge made the antagonism between both groups seem absurd. His conclusion they should “chill” seemed like the only reasonable solution to a fruitless rivalry. He was using storytelling to admonish both parties playfully and try to avoid further litigation.  

Criticisms of legal storytelling

Despite its common use and increasing popularity, especially in intellectual property litigation, some argue against using storytelling in law. Critics maintain it is inappropriate and can leave parties feeling diminished, but that would be an instance of ineffective storytelling not a reason to shut it down.

One prominent critic is Professor Alan Dershowitz, who argues that real life doesn’t conform to the conventions of classical drama, where “chest pains are followed by heart attacks, coughs by consumption”. In his article Life Is Not a Dramatic Narrative, he argues that attempts to bring principles of storytelling into the courtroom will lead to a distortion of the truth. 

It’s right that we acknowledge these criticisms and don’t dismiss them lightly. But they stem from a misunderstanding of what storytelling means.

Stories versus facts

We often use the word “story” to mean “lie”, presumably because of its association with fiction. So, it’s worth pointing out that not only fantasists but also journalists, and even scientists whose papers aim to win the acceptance of their peers, use the word “story”.

When we talk about legal storytelling, we don’t mean creating convenient narratives. We mean finding engaging, clear, and creative ways to communicate crucial information, navigate legal complexities, and translate dry facts for laypeople without the same penchant for stiff phrasing, opaque grammar, and terms of art as legal practitioners.

It’s wrong to think that stories and facts always oppose each other. We’ve known for a long time that stories help people remember information. They provide a logical framework for a series of facts that can be hard to make sense of on their own. Stories aid memory and their emotional impact is a way to make abstract legal principles seem routed in everyday reality. We can go further and argue that legal storytelling plays a crucial role in democratising access to the law and in making it transparent, understandable, and meaningful.

Stories for justice

For all its technical, scholarly nature, the law expresses the social and moral principles that govern our societies—storytelling taps into this sense of the moral dimension of law. Appealing to stories helps us navigate the way forward as a society. 

In Justice Robert Jackson’s summation at the Nuremberg trials, as Chief of Counsel for the United States, he quotes from Shakespeare’s Richard III to strengthen his closing argument:

“They [the defendants] stand before the record of this Trial as bloodstained Gloucester stood by the body of his slain king. He begged of the widow, as they beg of you: ‘Say I slew them not.’ And the Queen replied, ‘Then say they were not slain. But dead they are…’ If you were to say of these men that they are not guilty, it would be as true to say that there has been no war, there are no slain, there has been no crime.”

It would be hard to argue that this prime example of legal storytelling from 1946 was inappropriate or ineffectual. 

The benefits of legal storytelling

Legal storytelling helps not just legal professionals, but all parties make sense of the processes and outcomes of the law. Storytelling helps judges explain their decisions effectively, helps lawyers present their arguments with meaning and clarity, and reminds us of the moral and social implications of our actions.

If you have a legal story to tell, you’re in luck. Translating and editing statements of case and the related judgments happen to be my favourite work. Drop me a line, and let’s see how I can help you.