Better Beginnings in Legal Writing

Looking for ways to inspire your legal writing? How do you keep your legal reader’s attention? What makes the best “fact” sections stand out in legal writing? Three words: character, conflict and arch. We consider these storytelling techniques to achieve enticing, compelling beginnings in my recent Law & Literature article from The Columbus Bar’s “Lawyer’s Quarterly.




Best Lawyers, Best Writers

storyThe best lawyers are the best writers. Such lawyers command the technical and professional skills required of all legal writers, while also deploying the sometimes subtle tools of narrative nonfiction and novel writers. Those writer’s tools include a sense of character, conflict and story arch that drive all moving stories. The tools also involve story structure, plot development, and scene setting, among others. Yet those tools are rarely taught in law school legal writing courses. Law & Literature seeks to highlight the usefulness and enjoyment of storytelling for legal writers, without sacrificing the professional, ethical and technical sophistication required of the best legal writing.  Let us all strive to become better “legal storytellers.”

Law & Literature: Lawyer Storytelling


We can understand the law, like our own lives, through stories. After all, humans are the “storytelling animal,” as many have noted. But understanding this central truth about us is not enough, if we are to become the most capable advocates.

We must also study the essential structures and key ingredients that make the best stories effective.

How do stories work and why? What time-tested narrative principles best serve stories? What are some of the best stories ever told and why have they lasted so long, memorably convincing so many readers? And, just as important for the legal advocate, how can the answers to these and other law-lit questions guide our own truthful storytelling on behalf of clients?

Law & Literature can provide meaningful, useful answers for lawyers – the “storytelling animal” whose nature matches his or her calling.

Law and Literature: the Pleasures of Reading


Studying law is intellectually rewarding, no doubt. But it can be stultifying at times. After years of reading dusty legal opinions and prolix statutes, we crave good drama in the law.

We miss the powerful stories that interest us most – the characters, conflicts, and plots that breathe life into our laws.

We miss the human, empathetic side of law – the people embroiled in legal conflict, their messy emotions and contradictions.

We miss connection to larger questions of justice, truth, and meaning – morality and law, foundations of law, duty to obey law.

Law and Literature reminds us that these questions, emotions and stories are as vital to our understanding and experience of law as the statutes, legal opinions, and regulations that dominate our legal education.

Law and Literature also helps us become better writers – an immensely important legal skill – by learning from the best writers in fiction and nonfiction.

Law and Literature confronts us with ethical dilemmas that thoughtful lawyers must recognize and resolve.

Above all, though, Law and Literature is fun. We read great stories. We enjoy them. We talk about them. We write about them. We learn from them. The stories will challenge us to reexamine and reimagine our most fundamental assumptions and beliefs about law, our legal system, and the life of a lawyer.

Welcome to Law and Literature!

books-wallpaper-books-to-read-28990406-1024-768Do you wonder whether your legal education and your legal career can be part of a deeper, more integral vision of the law?

A vision of law that embraces as much of your imagination as intellect?

As much emotion and intuition as analysis and synthesis?

And as much story as rules, doctrines, and legal thinking?

If these questions spark some wonder in you, then you have come to the right place.

Law-Lit’s 3 promises:

  1. You will learn helpful, meaningful things about law, which is to say about yourself and your relationship with law. Law is far more than a set of rules and doctrines to guide social conduct.
  2. Law is a way of life, an ethical undertaking, an intellectual and emotional and – just as important for our study together- imaginative calling.
  3. This imaginative perspective combines stories, writing, and values about law in great literature with your conventional legal studies to deepen and enrich your education.

But law-lit doesn’t merely promise to improve your experience in, and of, the law, it promises also to improve your experience of legal education and practice.

Yes, law-lit makes the bold claim that you will have fun reading, contemplating, and discussing great works of fiction and nonfiction about the law.

Imagination, enrichment, and fun thus serve as our guiding lights toward . . .

Law-Lit’s 3 goals:

  1. To become better legal storytellers.
  2. To become better legal writers and communicators.
  3. To become more ethically attuned to the challenges and rewards of our legal careers.

Writing the Abundant Heart: Theme in Law-Lit

imgresWhat do you care about when you’re immersed in reading a good story?

Better, as a writer, what do you want readers to care about in your own writing?

Better still, when our readers set down our writing, what lasting values and emotions – what enduring feelings – do we hope to inspire in them?

Answer these questions – no easy task – and we just might find some understanding of theme in our writing. That notoriously obscure but most vital of story ingredients – theme. It is the organizing principle, the emotional core, the value-laden heart of our writing and reading.

This is equally true of persuasive writing in legal advocacy: theme both drives and organizes our reader’s emotional engagement. If well crafted, our theme works beneath the surface, unspoken and implicit, where its persuasive appeal nudges or taps our unconscious, the place from which we decide most matters in our lives.

But theme doesn’t tell us how to live well or relate to others or make the right decisions. It shows us the way. It shows us what’s relevant to our lives. It shows us what the story means. It is inherent, generative, and implicit.

So, the first rule of theme is not to talk about theme in your writing – at least not explicitly in your writing. A surefire way to kill a theme is to call it out directly in your writing.

The second rule of theme is let theme emerge, at least in part, organically from your writing. In other words, extract theme as you write. Don’t bring theme to your writing. No agendas, please.

Still, you may want a few techniques if you’re not so comfortable with the organic emergence of theme, or if want to start with theme in mind to usher your writing. If so, then writing coach Jack Hart offers the following advice in Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction:

  1. Give your writing a title at the very start to orient you to its essence, to drive your narrative or argument. The title should aim for the emotional center and value conflict inherent in your vision of the piece. This may seem tepid advice, or even ill-suited at the outset of any project, but effective theme-driven titles can serve as the most useful early organizing principle for your writing. They demand an overarching sense of your intentions as a writer, along with your best wishes for your reader’s interpretation. Keep in mind that your title/theme may change as your writing ensues. Be willing to change, again keeping in mind that your creativity and thinking will surely evolve through the act of writing.
  2. Come up with a theme statement, 1-2 sentences that capture the core emotional meaning and value at stake in your writing. One thought experiment that might help you with this: imagine sitting around the kitchen table with close family or friends enjoying coffee during an honest, open talk. They ask you what you’re writing is really about, what matters most in what you’re working on. Now give your answer in less than 10 seconds. Work to crystallize this answer into a universal value statement true to both the particulars of your writing and the nature of the world in which we live. A tall order, I know. But this is what makes themes so compelling – their jointly universal and personal appeal.
  3. Similar to this last technique, but more focused still, find the one sentence that expresses your writing’s “irreducible meaning,” in a phrase made popular by screen writing coach Robert McKee. In searching for this irreducible meaning, you should concentrate on finding the right verb, preferably a transitive one, that takes a direct object. This shows causality. And causality is crucial to theme because it shows your reader how the world works and what they can do to influence it. For instance, “Actions speak louder than words” shows the potency of the one-sentence theme reduction with a crisp, simple verb.
  4. Lajos Egri promotes a structural approach to theme, advising us to devise a theme with 3 story ingredients in mind – (1) character, (2) conflict, and (3) narrative arch. Thus, the theme “frugality leads to waste” (1) implies a frugal character, (2) suggests conflict through the verb phrase “leads to”, and (3) reveals a likely ending with “waste”.
  5. Collaborate with someone on theme by asking another what you’re writing is all about, whether it’s your editor or your friend or your imaginary ideal reader.

Whether we write with theme in mind at the outset, or allow theme to grow more organically out of our writing, or a little of both, these 5 techniques offer us choices as writers who care about our readers, who care about the quality of our own prose, and who seek to move others through the written word.

Law-Lit: Telling Better “Legal Stories”

images-2A winning legal argument works much like a compelling story. So much so, in fact, that we might say their overlapping functions follow their shared forms. These underlying forms are by no means equivalent, but their matching anatomy reveals how both good stories and good lawyers win us over.

Let’s take story first. What makes a riveting story? At least five essentials:

  1. Setting: selected details to create a story world that invokes our senses and suspends our disbelief
  2. Character: people who engender our empathy, who want or need, who struggle, and who change through conflict
  3. Structure: conflict-driven and causally connected events that culminate in success or failure for the characters
  4. Theme: a moral premise or underlying message about how we should live our lives
  5. Style: the artist’s stamp of skill, creativity, and expertise that lends to the story’s believability

Now compare the essentials of legal argument, broadly speaking. What ingredients yield the most persuasive legal positions?images-1

  1. Details: selected facts to invoke our senses relevant to the legal dispute, or what we call “legally relevant facts”
  2. Motives: parties in the legal dispute must engender our empathy – we must understand their needs, wants, and goals
  3. Coherence: conflict-driven legal reasoning (i.e., legal argument) coupled with story to create “narrative-driven argument”
  4. Theme: a moral premise or underlying message about how we should live our lives
  5. Credibility: the lawyer’s believability, stemming from skill, practical wisdom, knowledge, and expertise

As we see, these two structures track one another in meaningful ways:

  • Details – Setting: we select the right details to invoke the senses and create a believable, engaging world
  • Motive – Character: we engender empathy for the struggling people at the center of this conflicted world
  • Coherence – Structure: the conflict resolves through striving, confrontation, and change
  • Theme – Theme: moral underpinning that gives larger meaning and connection to us
  • Credibility – Style: skill, expertise, and credibility show in the work, the work of a professional who cares

imagesNot a perfect overlap, by any means, but surely one worthy of our further study and reflection. The key differences, too, deserve our attention. This is yet another law-lit mission for us – to improve our understanding and practice of both law and literature by exploring their fundamental forms. These forms might help us tell better “legal stories” to serve our clients and the legal system, never failing our overarching duty to truthfulness and justice.

Law-Lit’s Mission: Imagination, Emotion, Story


  1. We revive our moral imaginations and intellectual empathy to compliment legal reason as a path to solving law’s problems.
  2. We engage our emotional and intuitive faculties as foundations for sound judgments in law.
  3. We discover storytelling, along with fiction and nonfiction techniques, as routes to understanding law and better writing in the legal profession.
  4. We aim to become more adept with stories, reading, and writing to enhance communication and persuasion.
  5. We seek to ethically attune ourselves to the rewards and challenges of a fulfilling career – if not a calling – in the law.

3 Reasons We Need Law and literature

  • To do Justice!  “That’s not my job, my job is to apply the law,” famously retorted Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hence the conventional view of law: we apply known rules to guide conduct and make results predictable. Justice is secondary, if it concerns us at all. But this view disappoints, leaves us cold. We need to commit ourselves to seeking justice. We need a live debate about fairness and reason in law. We share responsibility for justice, not to hide behind our professional masks, our lawyerly jargon, and our habitual responses to legal problems. We should not leave justice to lawyers only, certainly not of the Holmes variety, but should include other voices. Literature offers many wise voices. We should listen to them.
  • To know injustice. Stories focus on particular, concrete instances of injustice. It is easier to know injustice than justice. Broad legal generalizations and rules can seem vapid, incomplete by comparison. Exposing ourselves vicariously through literature to concrete harm, loss and unfairness refines our sense of injustice. Such exposure tests our general legal propositions. And it prompts us to imagine how law might change to rectify injustice. Telling stories can ignite our moral imaginations.
  • To stop cruel formalism. Forms used to seek justice can themselves be infected with cruelties and frailties that produce injustice. We must examine our legal system’s penchant for formulaic, pat approaches to legal problems. We must counter consistency, predictability and efficiency with the realities – if not virtues – of flux and uncertainty at the core of most efforts to seek justice. This is not to deny the preeminent values of our legal system, but rather to embrace the humility that should accompany our various legal forms, procedures and rules. Literature can chasten and instruct us.

See Outside The Law: Narratives on Justice in America by Susan Richard Shreve and Porter Shreve, Editors (Beacon Press Boston, 1997) (My summary above draws from and distills the book’s introduction by Martha Minow).

Why Law and Literature?

Simply put, law and literature helps law students and lawyers achieve the following laudable goals:

  1. To become better at persuading – especially writing. The best writer often prevails in our legal system.
  2. To make sure our persuasion satisfies high ethical standards. Never sacrifice your ethics to win.
  3. To give us a vocabulary to explain our dissatisfaction with much legal analysis. Law’s conceptual tools alone do not explain justice and injustice. We need more.
  4. To look outside the strictly legal domain for perspective on law – we can’t solve a problem from within that problem.
  5. To allow a more nuanced, sophisticated appreciation of ambiguity in law. Ambiguity about factual matters, about indeterminacy in legal decisions, and about what constrains our courts in interpreting and applying law.

These are just a few of law-lit’s contributions to the intellectual and moral lives of all those who care about law and justice.