Storytelling for Lawyers: Vermont Law School Professor Writes Book About Justice and the Narrative Arc

Friday, April 25, 2014
In 1991 lawyer Philip Meyer spent 13 weeks in Hartford, Conn., watching the trial of Louie Failla, a small-time Mafia hoodlum indicted on racketeering charges along with seven other mobsters.

Failla seemed to have been caught dead to rights: the government had secretly recorded him boasting of participation in numerous illegal activities, and most seriously, two informants said he’d plotted to murder his daughter’s ex-boyfriend. It looked like a prosecutorial slam dunk until Failla’s lawyer Jeremiah Donovan swung into action, and turned the government’s case upside down.

Rather than being a murderous wiseguy, Donovan told the jury, Failla was a pathetic and delusional braggart who’d watched one too many mob movies. Yes, he’d been a low-level criminal, running errands for a mob boss named Billy Grasso, but he was also a fumbling, almost comical character, and you couldn’t believe half of what he said; he almost couldn’t help himself, tall tales came so naturally to him.

Failla was found guilty, but in a departure from federal sentencing guidelines the judge gave him a minimum sentence of 10 years, which Meyer, who has taught at Vermont Law School since 1992, attributes partially to Donovan’s bravura performance in the courtroom.

“Donovan did a magnificent job with Failla,” Meyer said. “He did as much as a criminal attorney could do. A good attorney, meaning an ethical and effective attorney, makes a profound difference.”

How lawyers tell stories to juries and judges is the subject of Meyer’s recently published book Storytelling for Lawyers (Oxford University Press). The book is intended not just for law students learning how to craft persuasive arguments, but for lay people simply curious about how popular culture, literature and the canon of case law mesh in the modern legal system.

“I’m interested in the relationship between popular storytelling and legal storytelling,” Meyer said in an interview in his office at the law school.

Meyer came to the law from a somewhat unusual direction. After getting an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa he decided, for practical reasons, to pursue the law. He got his J.D. from Vermont Law School, and an LL.M (Master of Laws) from Columbia University, which permitted him to teach. He taught at both N.Y.U. and the University of Connecticut law schools before returning to Vermont Law School as a professor.

“I needed a job, and it seemed like a direction to go in. I think a lot of people get into law that way,” said Meyer.

Soft-spoken and thoughtful, with graying hair and a beard, Meyer has in his bookcases not just legal references but fiction by Raymond Carver and Richard Yates. He teaches classes in criminal law, torts, the law and popular culture, and perspectives on capital punishment, as well as legal writing.

Both Donovan and a lawyer named Gerry Spence, renowned for the artfulness of their written and oral arguments, figure prominently in Meyer’s book.

Spence, a Wyoming lawyer, argued on behalf of the family of Karen Silkwood in the Estate of Karen Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee. An Oklahoma jury awarded $10 million in punitive damages to her family after Silkwood, who had made public complaints about unsafe working conditions at the Kerr-McGee Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma, and had also been contaminated with radioactive plutonium, was killed in a car accident.

In scrupulous detail, Storytelling for Lawyers examines how Donovan and Spence constructed the narratives that would most benefit their clients. They were both directors, and actors, in a sense, mapping out a narrative arc and then acting it out for the jury. Meyer analyzes how they drew on tropes from film and literature — the Western, the gangster film — to reframe the arguments.

“You can almost read the better arguments as if they’re a certain type of literature,” Meyer said. “You may not learn to be a great novelist, but if you’re systematic about narrative persuasion you can be a good lawyer.”

Lawyers have to follow the evidence, but they are free to shape the interpretation of that evidence. So in the Silkwood trial, Spence cast it, said Meyer, as the “evil corporation crushing the innocent Silkwood.” In the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, his attorney Johnny Cochran made the case not about Simpson but about the Los Angeles Police Department, and its reputation for misconduct.

“The jury had to stop the corrupt LAPD,” said Meyer: acquitting Simpson was just part of that larger context.

When teaching legal discourse, Meyer said, professors “tend to look more at the opinions than the arguments, but it’s in the arguments that you see the real eloquence. So much of advocacy is based on effective storytelling.”

Storytelling for Lawyers also looks at the relationship between pop culture’s portrayal of the law, and how the law actually works, which are, in many cases, very different things. “Popular images have an effect on how the law is understood and how it’s practiced,” Meyer said. “Film and TV are trying to create entertainment, but sometimes the stories lawyers tell aren’t entertaining.”

The images that exist in pop culture of how the law functions, or misfunctions, can have a corrosive effect because juries come in expecting to see something similar to what they see on television. It’s called “The CSI Effect,” after the popular CBS TV show about forensic investigators. Some studies have found that some jurors believe that all forensic evidence is infallible, or that forensic testing should be done in cases where it may not be necessary.

If you doubt the importance of story, look no further than a death penalty case, where, said Meyer, “the burden of not telling an effective story can be devastating. Will a jury think the defendant deserves to be spared because of an extensive back story?” For the defendant’s attorney, and indeed, for the jurors, “that’s an incredible burden to carry.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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