Lawyers: How to Win Cases with Storytelling

 

Remember being a child and having your favorite book read to you by a parent? Or hearing someone tell a funny family story that is often repeated? How about telling your friends about something great that happened over the weekend?

Storytelling is the oldest form of narrative communication by humans. It’s wired into our DNA. Every human culture uses stories in an attempt to explain and make sense of the universe.

The fastest way to connect to a jury when presenting your case is to use stories. When you talk with friends, you don’t use big legal words or complicated concepts. It should be no different when talking to a jury. Tell the story of your client and case in a way that jurors can relate to.

As author and keynote speaker Carmine Gallo said, “Storytelling is not something we do, storytelling is who we are.” His book The Storyteller’s Secret is a seminal book on how to win the hearts and minds of listeners through stories.

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How To Find Your Story

The most successful lawyers focus the jury’s minds on one idea.  They don’t just give out information and facts, but draw in the listeners by telling a story. The idea/story should take no longer than  30 seconds and use profound verbal imagery to forge an emotional connection.

Here is an example: The Plaintiff is a man who lost his arms in an accident.  The closing argument by his attorney was short and sweet, not hours. The lawyer, Moe Levine, explained that he and his client went to lunch like the jurors and everyone in the courtroom. However, because his client had no arms, he had to eat like a dog. This resulted in one of the largest settlements in New York’s history at the time.

 If you’re going to be a top trial attorney, you need to choreograph your whole case like a play and work on your own communication skills. Life happens in narratives, and you need a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.

Think about how you felt when you first took the case. What part of the client’s story gave you an emotional reaction? Start making notes about your feelings, not just your legal arguments, and condense them to one line. That will be the essence of your case. Expand that into a 30 second story and practice it on friends or focus juries.

Remember what John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden:

“If a story is not about the hearer he [or she] will not listen . . . A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting–only the deeply personal and familiar.”

Make your case into a story with a universal and heartfelt message, and great results will follow.

 

 

Blogging for Suicide Prevention:Ode to a Friend

Four days ago I answered my phone and was greeted by the sound of weeping. The call was to notify me a friend and attorney colleague had died by suicide, and I was being contacted because she’d left a note for me to take over her cases.

I’ve never lost anyone to suicide. Death isn’t a stranger, taking both my parents in 2010 within four months of each other, and many others over the years. Yet, the news of my friend’s final act shoved me into shock.

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There were two immediate questions: How and Why?

The How was easily answered. At midnight, she’d stepped off a 200 foot bridge, a location that’s a suicide magnet in our area. Had she looked out at the lights of the downtown skyscrapers and peacefully left the ledge, her eyes on their twinkling beauty, or had she stared at the water churning below and cast herself into it, wanting desperately to end whatever pain she’d been feeling? I knew she’d made a previous suicide attempt years before and now, perhaps, she needed a certain near-guaranteed finality.

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It’s the second question, the Why, that lingers. Speculation and piecing together events will never resolve this. Her detailed notes about what to do with her cases, the list she left of her online passwords, a handwritten letter to her father, the thoughtful paying of her office rent through the coming month…these are acts of someone clear-headed and prepared. On her last day she was seen in court, laughing, talking, smiling and going through her normal routine. Was it because she knew that at midnight she’d drive to her final destination and it would be over and whatever pain she felt would be gone?

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Initially, the guilt bus rolled in and stopped in front of me with questions. Why couldn’t I have saved her? What could I have done? What had I missed? I replayed all conversations I’d had with her over the past five months. I knew she’d felt increased anxiety and was desperately trying any method, both holistic and traditional, to combat it. Things began to spiral when her mother, who had abandoned the family years before, resurfaced. A few weeks ago, we’d had a long talk. When I’d first answered the phone, her voice had been panicked but, as we explored her feelings, she’d calmed down. I’d offered assistance if she needed me to make court appearances. I’d told her she could call me any time to talk. Then, on her birthday, I’d called and gotten her voicemail. I’d left a message and she’d texted me back, all happy and normal with a smiley face rounding it out. Four days later, she was dead.

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In addition to my guilt, there’s anger. As coolly and calmly as she’d planned for the ramifications of her death, she actually left things in a bit of a mess. Her accounts were frozen. Her office had to be packed up by her grieving father, the certificates removed from the walls, the hidden chocolate thrown out, the contents of her desk and credenza explored. As I helped and locked down my feelings of grief, I wanted to shake her for the anguish I saw in her father’s eyes as he dutifully taped together boxes to pack her things in. My mind played a loop of “What a WASTE” over and over.

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When Robin Williams had killed himself, she’d blogged about how she could relate, and what she was doing to not go down that road. She was smart, always exploring her feelings. She attended self-improvement workshops nearly every weekend and sought ways through alternative treatments and exercise to stay healthy.  As another mutual friend put it so well, she looked like a duck on a lake. Serene, floating along, but under the water where no one could see, her feet were paddling like mad.

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Here is where I could list a bunch of statistics about suicide and mental illness. I could talk about how there’s a guy at the State Bar who has dealt with lawyer deaths for 20 years who kept his voice as calm and quiet as a person whispering in church when he spoke to me about what to do about wrapping up my friend’s practice. Or how there’s been at least five lawyers in this county in the past few years who have taken their lives and how the added stress might have contributed. Or how everyone who knew her is still reeling with their own versions of the WHY question and seeking answers.

All I know to say to anyone who is considering ending their lives is:

No matter how isolated you feel, there are people who will be profoundly affected by your death.

No matter how carefully you plan things, you’re going to leave loved ones and friends picking up the pieces.

People LOVE you and want you to stay, even if you are having a hard time believing it.

We will do ANYTHING to help you.

Please let us.

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OUTSIDE THE USA: http://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/

The Tale of a Bad Case

This week I had a friend ask me to write about my worst legal experience. I immediately said NO. There have been a lot of gut-wrenching, nightmare making, soul searching cases that I choose not to relive.

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The more I thought about this, I did recall one I don’t mind sharing.

I had been a prosecutor for about three years and was assigned to do misdemeanor trials. Today, prosecutors are assigned their cases ahead of time and have a chance to review them. Then, in the days of “Wild West” prosecution, I sat with a group of young attorneys in court behind our misdemeanor team leader. If a case got confirmed for trial, he would turn around with a slim, manila folder and hand it to the lucky recipient with the words “You’re in Department 3” or wherever you were sent.

One day, I was handed a file and flipped through the pages of the police report as I walked toward the department. It was a battery case. A young man had decide he didn’t like something my male victim had said and hit him.

When I got to the department, my victim sat outside on one of the wooden benches. He was a middle-aged, thin man and looked like he’d just eaten a lemon, lips pursed in a sour expression. I introduced myself and told him to tell me what had happened. He was angry, volatile and had a very healthy sense of entitlement. Within two minutes, I wanted to hit him.

The defense attorney was a blind man who had a loveable, yellow Lab seeing-eye dog. I  wore a pleated skirt with a bow in my hair in a futile attempt to counteract the cuteness of the dog.

The only thing I had going for me was the young male defendant was built like a football player, clearly much larger and more threatening than my victim, and he wore an earring. I was in a conservative part of the county and most of the jurors wouldn’t like that.

After picking a jury and doing opening statements, I called the victim to the stand. It immediately became a game of “Just answer the question.” The victim was determined to go down side roads, embellish his answers and give irrelevant responses no matter what I asked. It took way too long to get the story out about what had happened and I sat down, exasperated, knowing the jury’s patience was probably wearing thin.

Then cross-examination began. After some initial questions, the defense said “I understand you’re on kidney dialysis. Are you familiar with how this affects your ability to recall events?”

This was a fair question. Maybe the victim’s medical condition messed with his memory.

My victim’s response?

“I’m as familiar with my condition as you are with your BLINDNESS! And I’m on (lists numerous drugs) due to being a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. I’m under treatment by a renowned psychologist and (begins long diatribe about his mental illness.)”

My thoughts about this aren’t printable. You get surprises sometimes during trials, but not like that. The victim hadn’t chosen to share this information with me previous to this moment or I would’ve done something to soften it and I would have brought it out in my case. Now it was like watching a traffic accident you couldn’t stop.

In closing arguments, I told the jury that yes, the victim was unlikable, but it could be caused by his mental illness.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination that something he said would make you want to hit him, but that was against the law.

That was all I had. I mean, really.

Waiting for verdicts is always the hardest part of a case. You pace around the office, try to distract yourself with other work, but it’s always on your mind. Time passed. More time passed. I’d anticipated a quick “Not guilty.”

Several hours later, I got a call to come to the court for some surprising news: the jury was hopelessly deadlocked. When polled, the jury came back 10-2 for not guilty. I’d managed to convince two out of twelve and still count that as a very memorable “win.”