Storytelling Is a Lawyer’s Craft

“Law cases can be very much like stories, involving principal characters, their conflict, and conflict resolution – all within a story line or plot.  Lawyers, like authors, must also be skilled at projecting the characters’ motivations, personality, and interests, while discerning how the audience will respond to differing perspectives, styles, and voice.” – WMU-Cooley Professor and Lawyer Storytelling Workshop Panelist David Tarrien.

WMU-Cooley Lawyer Storytelling Workshop

The law school’s Grand Rapids campus invites law students, attorneys and community to participate in its summer Lawyer Storytelling Workshop. The workshops help participants write law-related fiction as a way to hone their storytelling craft.

Workshop panelist Anna Rapa, who defends indigent clients against federal criminal charges, called telling her clients’ stories a “sacred task.”  Rapa added that she must work hard to find fresh and evocative ways to “depict the client’s humanity” and show clients as “worthy of redemption” in what is too often a dehumanizing criminal justice system.

Panelist Bill Jack, managing partner of the statewide law firm Smith Haughey, agreed that storytelling must be an effective trial lawyer’s skill and art.  Both Rapa and Jack have authored and published fiction as a way to hone their storytelling art.  “Write for yourself,” Jack urged, adding, “Your first novel is autobiographical.”

Panelist Matt Levin is a student at the Grand Rapids campus and already a skilled storyteller with two published novels, a literary agent, and many published short stories.  Levin agreed that while writing and promoting a bestseller would be tremendously rewarding, and he was glad when his writing did well, ultimately the greater value is in how the process shapes the writer.

Panelist Tonya Krause-Phelan, a professor and dean at the campus who in her former law practice successfully defended a mother charged with the murder of her infant, shared her own commitment to compelling advocacy through these communication arts.  Trial lawyers must somehow recreate for jurors scenes of real events, in ways that help jurors make critical judgments.

Workshop participants are each writing their own short story this summer for publication in a book of their collected works.  Six students are earning academic credit, treating the workshops as a Directed Study course with faculty supervision, while other participants are taking part just to learn more of the storytelling art.

The first workshop addresses the reasons and inspiration for writing, and selection of character, conflict, and resolution.  The second workshop addresses development of story and theme, and editing. The third workshop addresses publication issues.  Associate Dean Nelson Miller, publisher of 36 books on law and related subjects, organized and moderates the series.

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