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Be a storytelling lawyer

Special to the News Columns
Jim Vickaryous

Jim Vickaryous

I have noticed that the better educated a person is, the less likely they can tell a gripping story. Ask a sailor, fisherman, or cop for a story, and you can’t stop listening. Ask a lawyer for a good story, and you immediately regret it. Somehow, our modern education system has bleached out the natural ability of a person to tell a great story. The best storyteller I have ever come across had a third-grade education and was barely literate. You could tell that my Grandpa Tony was about to tell one heck of a great story because it started with a twinkle in his blue eyes and a wry half-smile on his weathered face. He was an Alaskan homesteader who could raise the hair on the back of your neck recounting a midnight run-in with an angry grizzly bear, and how he survived to tell the tale.     

While storytelling might not come naturally to those who had to memorize the rule against perpetuities, it comes in handy in a lawyer’s toolbox of skills. In a world where communication is often reduced to cold facts and figures, the art of storytelling can be an incredibly powerful tool for lawyers. By weaving together compelling narratives that capture the essence of a case, a storytelling lawyer can connect with judges, jurors, and clients on a deeper emotional level, and create a sense of shared understanding and empathy that can be invaluable in achieving positive outcomes. 

So what exactly is a storytelling lawyer, and how do they differ from your typical modern lawyer? A story telling lawyer is someone who recognizes the importance of narrative in the legal process, and who has honed their skills at crafting compelling stories that can help to sway opinions and influence outcomes. They understand that people are wired to respond to stories and that by tapping into this innate human trait, they can more effectively communicate the key points of a case and engage with their audience in a way that is both memorable and persuasive. A storytelling lawyer knows that even his adversaries can’t help but listen when a compelling story is being told. A story with a reason, a parable, goes a long way to renting space in the listener’s head. If it is a truly great story, it will spend a lifetime in the listener’s head.  

The best stories are self-deprecating. If the storyteller can make a point using himself as the foil, all the better. A man and woman walked up from the darkness as my group of friends were enjoying a New Years Eve beach bonfire. It was cold and windy, and they just wanted warm themselves by the fire. I told them they were welcome to join us, but we would appreciate a story. Our new friend with a booming Texas voice began his story piloting his company’s airplane, flying to a problem rig that had not struck oil. His banker was on the airplane, as they were negotiating a large loan extension. His geologist and rig operations manager were on the airplane too. The weather was bad, and he could not land at the airport nearest to the rig.  is company was in dire straits, but his need for money was worse than the weather. He hoped the fog would burn away by midday. The plane’s fuel pushed toward empty as he circled the airport. The engines stopped, and the plane began silently gliding down through the fog. Tears rolling down his cheeks, he told his banker, his geologist, and his ops manager that he was sorry for killing them, because of his fear and greed. He said a quick prayer. The fog lifted, and he was gliding straight for a long road in a newly built development with no homes. He and his passengers survived, and he swore never to put money and fear of failure over human life again. “Now that’s a great story,” I told him, chills running down my spine.  

Storytelling can also help to make legal arguments more memorable. By framing a case in a compelling narrative, lawyers can create an enduring impression in the minds of their audience. This can be particularly powerful in cases where the details are complex or technical, as a well-told story can help to simplify and clarify the issues, making them more accessible to the layperson. 

But how does one become a storytelling lawyer? There are many different strategies and techniques that can be used to develop this skill. An effective approach is to focus on the “big picture” of a case, and to identify the overarching themes and messages that are most important to convey. By crafting a narrative that brings these themes to life, lawyers can create a compelling story that resonates with their audience. 

You don’t have to tell stories about crashing airplanes or crossing paths with grizzly bears to capture the attention of your listener. I had the honor of taking a long hike with some Boy Scouts. As I was catching my breath and trying to keep up, I suggested that we each tell a story to help pass the time. I volunteered to tell the first story. Being a humble Scout, the first young man was reticent to tell a story, claiming that he did nothing to make a story worth telling. I told him that it’s not the story that counts, but how you tell it. The best storytellers can get their point across recounting the most mundane things, but in an enticing way. I asked him what the first thing was he did that morning after waking up. He smiled and said, “I ate a big bowl of cereal.” Since we had some time to kill on our hike, we worked on how to tell a great story about eating a bowl of cereal. It turned out to be a funny story, told in a way that only a goofy 15-year-old boy can tell. Everybody has a story to tell, you just have to pull it out of them. 

Being a storytelling lawyer can be a powerful and effective way to communicate legal arguments in a way that is engaging, memorable, and persuasive.  By harnessing the power of narrative to bring legal issues to life, lawyers can connect with their audience on a deeper level and create a sense of shared understanding and empathy that can be invaluable in achieving positive outcomes. However, it is important to approach storytelling with care and caution, and to always remain grounded in the truth and accuracy of the case at hand. By balancing emotional appeal with sound legal analysis, and by developing a nuanced understanding of the art of storytelling, lawyers can become powerful advocates for their clients, and can make a lasting impact on the legal profession. Ultimately, being a storytelling lawyer is about more than just winning cases – it’s about connecting with people on a human level, and using the power of narrative to make a difference in the lives of those we represent. 

Let’s all resolve to be story telling lawyers.

Jim Vickaryous is the managing partner of the Vickaryous Law Firm in Lake Mary and represents the 18th Circuit on The Florida Bar Board of Governors.  

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