July 01, 2013

Trials: A Storyteller’s Apprentice

Sarah F. King

In Native American culture, storytelling is an art passed on through generations of master tribal storytellers. Hopeful “emerging tribal tellers” apply for apprenticeships with masters to learn the art and craft of traditional storytelling. If accepted, the apprentices sit beside the masters, for years, observing how to present traditional stories from their tribal background within their community.

After a year of practice as a hopeful trial attorney, I have learned this: Successful trial lawyers are master storytellers, associates their apprentices.

A few weeks after receiving the happy news that I didn’t fail the bar, I began preparing to chair my first jury trial—a complex birth injury case. My first task was to draft a confidential pretrial memorandum for the judge. Following the legal writing routine I had cultivated over the course of my three years as a law clerk, I plowed through an endless supply of depositions and medical records, constantly taking notes and highlighting minor details. Thirty pages and 20 exhibits later, I handed my “masterpiece” to my boss. Barely three pages in, he looked up from the manifesto and asked very simply, “What’s the story?”

I sat silent for a moment absorbing the shock of the rebuff. The story? I suddenly became keenly aware of the girl inside me that had once lived for romance, tragedy, and magical realism—she was very familiar with stories. She had a BA in English lit. Many, many moons ago, she even enjoyed creative writing and poetry. But that was before she had been tortured into submission during law school, forced to live in a dark room writing “for example,” “therefore,” and “wherefore” over and over again on whitewashed walls. Ignoring my impulse to let the tortured captive answer, I began to mechanically rattle off hospital admission times, blood pressures, and cervix measurements. I didn’t get far.

I was stopped mid-sentence by an open palm in the air. “No,” he said, “that’s not the story. Try again.” Pausing for another moment to roll the word around like a marble in my head—story—I came up empty-handed. With nothing left to lose, I set the captive free: “This is a story about a scared young mother who had a right to be seen by a physician.”

Almost as surprised as I was by the captive’s contribution, my boss smiled and said, “Better.” He reached for a pen and scribbled something on top of my disgraced manifesto. As he tossed the draft back my way, he said, “When it comes to trial, it’s all about the story.” I looked down at the page. “REWRITE” appeared in bold red caps.

In his novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck wrote:

A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it.

I am not sure whether Steinbeck would have made a good trial lawyer, but after a year of practice and chairing three jury trials, I consider myself a storyteller’s apprentice and I know that Steinbeck’s words apply equally to a trial attorney and a novelist. When it comes to trial, it’s all about taking a jumbled mess of facts and turning it into a story that has points of contact. Jurors will not relate their personal beliefs, values, and truths to a list of facts and measurements—no matter how compelling. They connect to the case through the story.

A month after the REWRITE incident, I sat next to my boss and watched in amazement as the story of the young mother twisted and turned through the courtroom. Like chapters in a novel, each stage of the trial added yet another layer of facts and truth. Voir dire was much more than just a lengthy barrage of invasive questions; rather, it was a stage on which the narrator was introduced to the audience and the seeds of the theme were planted. Witnesses were not called to the stand to methodically repeat the Q&A of the witness before; rather, they were characters, presented in a meticulous order to give their unique account of the incident and advance the plot. What is most important, the story moved at a programmed pace that allowed the audience time for education and insight.

The momentum of the trial gradually rose to a crescendo over the next two weeks. Remarkably, for $17.20 a day, the jury seemed to remain as intrigued as I. After a day of deliberation, we were rewarded with a sizable verdict in our client’s favor. The young mother, now in her thirties, put her head in her hands and cried.

I stayed behind after the courtroom cleared to round up a few stray exhibits and equipment. The only other person left was the judge’s clerk, Barb. Like the jurors, Barb had been present every day of the trial, diligently stamping orders and ordering lunch. As I packed my laptop into my briefcase, I happened to overhear Barb on the phone with what sounded like her sister, hammering out the details of a family get-together. Before wishing her sister goodbye, Barb said, “Oh yeah, I’ll be at the house early. The case is over. A sad story with a good ending. I’ll tell you at dinner.”

Unknowingly, Barb had neatly summed up this apprentice’s goal for the coming years: to develop the skill to tell a compelling story that empowers a jury to give it a good ending

Sarah F. King

The author is with Clifford Law Offices, Chicago.