Much has been written about trial lawyers adopting storytelling techniques in order to best present their client’s case. Indeed, it makes sense to boil down complex facts into a compelling story that will motivate jurors to decide a case in your client’s favor. But how does one learn to do that? Commentators tell us to learn from screenwriters and playwrights, the best of whom have mastered the art.
In a recent article, The Architecture of Drama: How Lawyers Can Use Screenwriting Techniques to Tell More Compelling Stories, University of Colorado Professor, Theresa Bruce, suggests that lawyers can adopt a formula: “SCoR”, to build the elements of a compelling trial presentation. The “S” stands for “setup.” The “Co” is short for “confrontation.” The “R” symbolizes “resolution.” These phases of the story are played out over a classic three-act structure.
The following is my oversimplification of and take on some of Professor Bruce’s observations and how you can use the “SCoR” concept as a template to begin building your client’s trial story. Consider the three acts of your trial story.
Your Client is introduced in Act 1. This is the where you describe his or her life before the bad event that led to the case. Perhaps life was idyllic. Maybe your client had a hard life, but at least had a good reputation, good health or otherwise had reason to be thankful. Near the end of Act 1, the peace is broken by an inciting incident. In a personal-injury case, this could be the accident. In a commercial case, this could be when the deal falls apart or the invention is stolen. In her work, Professor Bruce introduces the concept of a “hook” intended to grab the audience into the story. One device might be to place the audience in the first person, inside what the client is experiencing as the bad act occurs.
The inciting incident is followed by the introduction of the opposing party. Up until now, the story has hopefully built your client’s credibility and sympathy for his or her situation. Now the story turns to the opposing party’s bad acts: the negligence or recklessness that led to your client’s predicament, injury or demise. Act 2 is largely about the interplay between the shortcomings of your opponent and the virtues of your client. Act 2 is where the jury learns about what your opponent’s actions have caused (i.e. damages or perhaps the threat to his or her reputation from a false accusation). Act 2 is where your theme of the case is introduced. That theme will summarize why your trial story is more compelling than the one constructed by your opponent.
Each trial story remains unfinished until the jury renders its verdict. The jurors must understand that they have the playwright’s pen in hand to finish the story in a manner that does justice to your client’s cause. In this sense, the courtroom is theater framing a real-life story. In Act 3 (i.e. closing argument), you’ll repeat your trial theme as you discuss the verdict.
Usually the trial story will first be told completely in opening statement. If you need to brush up on the law of opening statements, check out GlanceCharts’ Quick Guide to Federal Civil Procedure. The story will be told again throughout the presentation of your witnesses and other evidence. Finally, you will summarize the story elements in closing.
Consider the above as only the barest introduction to the trial storytelling art. Juror persuasion demands learning the craft then taking it deeper by experience. In future articles I will dig deeper on this subject and more fully weave in the role of trial themes.