Friday, January 22, 2016

A Review of Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling

Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling by Jonathan Shapiro is probably best characterized as a “why-to” rather than a “how-to” tell persuasive stories in a legal setting. To be sure, Shapiro offers numerous suggestions to improve both written and oral advocacy, but the book is mostly an irreverent mix of stories—stories about real lawyers and real cases; stories about TV lawyers; stories about Hollywood types; and stories about non-legal characters who are, themselves, larger than life. Shapiro adeptly shows readers how to craft a story and uses the stories he crafts to show why stories are important:

If the book sometimes reads like an excuse to tell stories rather than as a manual on how to tell them, then I have done my job. Stories are meant to be instructive and entertaining. Stories that are instructive but not entertaining are called lectures.

Shapiro makes his criticism of lawyers clear from the beginning: many lawyers fail to recognize the importance of storytelling, fail to learn their clients’ stories, and fail to tell those stories persuasively. Why is legal storytelling so important? According to Shapiro,

What lawyers actually do—all of them—is gather information and then share it with others in the most effective way possible. They do this to persuade others to do or not to do something or to make a certain decision….Storytelling—what it is, why it matters, how to do it—is not, therefore, a metaphor for legal advocacy. It is legal advocacy itself.

Shapiro’s chapters on Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle, logos, ethos, and pathos, are particularly important to those of us interested in legal writing. Shapiro argues—rightly, I think—that while each leg of the triangle is necessary to craft a story that can withstand scrutiny, no two triangles should be alike:

Every triangle has three sides. But each triangle has its own unique shape and appearance...It’s is the lawyer’s job to tell the right story, to build the appropriate triangle for his or her client, to make subjective judgments based on the variables as to whether to spend more or less time on establishing ethos, displaying logos, or eliciting pathos.

Jonathan Shapiro
Photo courtesy of
What follows is a series of stories designed to both show the power of these rhetorical techniques and to teach lawyers how to construct their triangles for maximum effectiveness. Sounds as fun as a dentist appointment, right? Wrong. The lure of Lawyers is Shapiro’s ability to entertain and instruct simultaneously. You won’t even realize how much you’ve learned until you find yourself starting to implement Shapiro’s storytelling methods in your own work.   

Lawyers is a delight throughout, chock full of hilarious quips, anecdotes, tips, and pointers. Some of my favorites include:

·         Building credibility (“In a robe, [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg was as commanding as the biblical Ruth. Out of her robe, she was my mother-in-law.”);

·         Being or having a good editor (“If I could have a superpower, it would not be invisibility or the ability to fly. It would be the power to edit.); and

·         Using technology to enhance storytelling (“Technology requires that all storytellers, including lawyers, rethink how to communicate with the audience.”).

Lawyers is—as reviewer Paul Reiser promises—informative, insightful, and funny. The 270-page book is a quick read. But its irreverence shouldn’t be confused with lack of substance. Lawyers has much to offer both to trial lawyers and those whose written work is their primary means of advocacy. No need to bring a highlighter or take notes, though. Thanks to Shapiro’s own ability to tell stories, you won’t need either to learn (and remember) lots from Lawyers!   

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