Lawyers Tell a Story

Aynsley Capehart

I dedicate this chapter to those who may share a tendency to doubt themselves and minimize their hard work. May we be exceedingly proud of ourselves and our effort this semester. I would like to thank my professor for giving me the opportunity to write about topics of my choice that genuinely sparked my interest. I, especially, want to thank my family for constantly encouraging me to do my best, but most importantly, to enjoy myself in the process.

Keywords: Lawyer, Storyteller, Persuasion, Metaphors, Connection

“Objection! speculation!” If you’re anything like me and you enjoy watching legal shows and movies, then you’ve likely heard courtroom scenes repeatedly yell out “objection.” I’m pretty certain that lawyers don’t say that phrase in real life nearly as often as in films, but whether legal films are accurate or not isn’t the focus of my paper. Instead, I’m proposing that lawyers are storytellers. I think it’s typical for lawyers to get a bad rap as being calculative or intimidating. And, as someone who dabbles with the idea of law school, I wanted to take a refreshed perspective to understand who lawyers are? Lawyers and I’m specifically working with the idea of criminal lawyers, are storytellers presenting their side of an argument. They build on legal rhetoric in presenting the evidence in a narrative story format with a beginning and end. Lawyers must communicate as storytellers to really engage the jury members and spark emotions. Using vivid examples and building on the power of visual imagery, they make certain points more memorable as they try to turn jury members on to their side of the case.

Storytelling is an essential way for lawyers to succeed in a significant part of their job: persuading the judge and jury. While not unique to just lawyers, a lawyer’s persuasion is more likely to have “long-lasting impacts on the audience” (Berger & Stanchi, 2018) when there is a substantial audience connection and emotional appeal. This builds on elements of legal rhetoric. With legal rhetoric, lawyers are expected to introduce their argument, give context, explain the facts in a cohesive, engaging way, and conclude by restating their argument (Berger & Stanchi, 2018). But as storytellers, lawyers add on to this rhetorical structure and bring in descriptive aspects of storytelling. Rather than, for instance, concluding in a way that is super concise or “terse” (Frost, 2005), they use their closing argument to “put the audience in the right state of emotion” (Frost, 2005). Thus, their persuasion goes beyond reciting evidence.

Lawyers are storytellers who are very intentional about making sure the jury and judge are focused and interested in what they are saying. To accomplish this, lawyers really concern themselves with connection and emotional appeals. Michael Frost explains that lawyers should “make the audience feel the right emotions – pity, indignation, anger, hatred, envy, emulation, antagonism.” They “must tailor their arguments to suit multiple audiences and that this skill must be learned and practiced” (Frost, 2005). In other words, lawyers do more than just list the facts of their case when advocating for their clients. Whether it be through “stories, metaphor,” “analogies” (Berger & Stanchi, 2018), lawyers step into their storytelling shoes and command their audience. Take Vincent Bugliosi, for example, Charles Manson’s prosecutor. This is the final segment from his closing argument:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Sharon Tate…Abigail Folder…Voytek Frykowski…Jay Sebring…Steven Parent…Leno LaBianca…Rosemary LaBianca…are not here with us now in this courtroom, but from their graves they cry out for justice. Justice can only be served by coming back to this courtroom with a verdict of guilty.

By saying “from their graves they cry out for justice” and listing each victim’s name, Bugliosi is solidifying a connection. He’s painting a picture.

Lawyers are inclined to tell stories. Storytelling is an overall more accessible way of communicating in a courtroom that enables lawyers to explain a case in more than just legal jargon, creating a way for the audience to understand the case better. Going back to Vincent Bugliosi’s closing argument, he spells out why Charles Manson counted as a murderer in a slightly more poetic, propelling way. This type of narrative impulse toward storytelling, is frankly, a powerful way of relaying information because it brings depth to arguments, more so than focusing solely on rationality, statistics, and logistical evidence (which are elements that may fall flat without a narration to go with it). Walter R. Fisher explains this narrative paradigm as a worldview understanding that we (human beings) are storytellers, “we acquire narrativity in the natural process of socialization” (Fisher, 2003). In other words, listening and telling stories is part of day-to-day life, both inside and outside of a courtroom.

Professors always advise us as students not to read directly from a PowerPoint for class presentations. It limits eye contact and sounds unexciting, almost creating a barrier and making it difficult for the audience to connect with us as the presenter. The same logic applies to lawyers. Lawyers already know ahead of time which evidence the opposite side will present and the witnesses they’ll call. But it wouldn’t be enough if they were monotone and just recited that evidence aloud, verbatim from the case file, as their opening statement. Like gifted storytellers, lawyers have to use an engaging tone and style and take advantage of metaphors, which they use skillfully, to “explain, describe, persuade, or emphasize” (Foster, 2005). In an episode of Law and Order, the female lawyer represents a client in a pharmaceutical case and pours hundreds of pills into a large vase during her closing argument. According to the real lawyer analyzing the scene, this proved to be a “striking visual metaphor that this jury is not going to forget…great way to bring home the facts and create something that’s gonna stick with the jury” (LegalEagle, 2:28). Given that I watched the scene once and still remember the pills, I’d agree that visuals and specific imagery are more than compelling storytelling elements.

Storytelling isn’t confined to just the lawyers’ opening and closing statements. Lawyers intentionally ask questions with an answer in mind. In other words, they direct the story, asking questions that will follow the desired direction and support their argument. During moments of direct examination and cross-examinations, for instance, the lawyer questions their own witness, and the proper procedure is to ask an open-ended question that kind of asks, “what happens next?” (LegalEagle, 2:28). While it might be the witness’s job to answer, it’s part of the lawyer’s job to create that intrigue of what happens next. In Janet Cotterill’s paper about “Lawyers’ Control of Witness Testimony,” she explains that “lawyers are positioned in the interactional driving seat,” “they are able to control testimony” (Cotterill, 2004). And since, theoretically, lawyers shouldn’t ask questions they don’t already know the answer to, especially when they cross-examine the other party’s witness, then they are already predicting the answer to the question and pushing the story in that specific direction.

Lawyers can use knowledge about memory encoding to gain a bit of an upper hand, aiming to be more descriptive and concrete in their statements when they want members of the court to remember a specific detail about the case. When it comes down to it, the audience isn’t looking at a narrative that they can reread and recall later; they are listening to a verbal argument, so it should strike a chord. A lawyer understanding encoding (a stage of memory processing) could prove to be beneficial. With visual encoding, people have an easier time conjuring up images of “concrete, high-imagery words” like “book” versus abstract words like “truth.” The concrete words lead to more vivid images “encoded both visually and semantically, thus building a stronger memory” (Lumencandela, 2021). This could bode well in a courtroom. The lawyers might, for instance, be more specific in their storytelling and questioning of their witnesses and offer a visual metaphor like the pills. After all, a story should really be powerful, vivid, and imaginative to be memorable.

Lawyers can seem manipulative. I read a video comment saying, “this guy seems really likable for a lawyer…suspicious”. I think this negativity stems from lawyers defending all, including a guilty client, including history’s most notorious serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. In defending all, the lawyer has to assign responsibility elsewhere and shift the focus of their argument to another piece of evidence, pulling the focus away from what their client did or didn’t do. This can inherently put them in a position of power. There’s also the element of lawyers playing on emotions. Frost used words like “exploiting the emotional content” and “ways to manipulate the emotions of the court,” which gives lawyers a negative, manipulative connotation. However, at the end of the day, a lawyer’s job isn’t to be liked. A lawyer’s job is to advocate for their client, guilty or not guilty, and they are responsible for trying to be objective and ethical in the process. I am not discounting the role facts play in a trial, nor am I suggesting that lawyers are limited or confined to being storytellers. After all, “trials are won and lost on the evidence and the documents” (LegalEagle, 9:43). But a lawyer can’t simply rattle off-dry statistics. They must tell a story that can succeed in getting the court members to listen and may even help the lawyer prevent a wrongful conviction.

Lawyers are the voice and authors of their presentation, choosing the words and directing the story. It is more likely that, through storytelling, lawyers will succeed in building a connection with emotional appeals and eventually refining their art of persuasion. It’s an engaging and accessible way of explaining the trial, and lawyers have the option to perfect it further through metaphors and high-imagery descriptors. They direct both their opening and closing arguments and purposefully create a storyline when they question their witnesses. Lawyers build a foundation that not only sparks a visual but channels the right emotions. A lawyer’s ultimate goal is to defend their client, impact the courtroom, and persuade them to agree with their argument for a non-guilty verdict. And what better way to do that than to peak the court’s interest as a legal storyteller who will walk them through the case, tap into their emotions and be memorable.

Works Cited

Fisher, Walter. “Narration As A Human Communication Paradigm: The Case Of Public Moral Argument,” 2003.

Frost, Michael H. Introduction to Classical Legal Rhetoric: a Lost Heritage. London, [England]; Routledge, 2016.

Gooch JC. Reading, Writing, and Imagining the Law: Using James Boyd White’s Theories as an Approach to Analyzing Legal Rhetoric. Rhetor Journal of the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric. 2011;4:1-21.

Janet Cotterill. Collocation, Connotation, and Courtroom Semantics: Lawyers’ Control of Witness Testimony through Lexical Negotiation. Applied Linguistics. 2004;25(4):513-537. doi:10.1093/applin/25.4.513

LegalEagle, video-Real Lawyer Reacts to Suits, Law & Order, and L.A. Law // LegalEagle

“Memory Encoding | Introduction to Psychology.” Lumencandela, n.d, 2021.

Yu W. Linda L. Berger and Kathryn M. Stanchi: Legal Persuasion: A Rhetorical Approach to the Science. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law. 2018;31(4):1003-1008. doi:10.1007/s11196-018-9591-8


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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Aynsley Capehart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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