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Law and storytelling: the art of persuasion

Steve Jobs once said "the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come".

Storytelling is inherent to the law. "The law always begins in story," says James Boyd White, an American law professor, literary critic, scholar and philosopher. "Usually in the story the client tells - whether he or she comes in off the street for the first time or adds in a phone call - another piece of information to a narrative with which the lawyer has been long, perhaps too long, familiar. It ends in a story too, with a decision by a court or jury or an agreement between the parties about what happened and what it means."

Litigators employ storytelling as a central tenet of their cases. Lawyers will use storytelling techniques to build descriptive and analytical depictions of events in their client's favor, which impacts a juror's decision and thus the outcome of trials. As Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie state: "A central cognitive process in juror decision-making is story construction."

While one would not be remiss in applying the concept of legal storytelling or persuasion solely to litigators, it definitely has its place in-house. Business stakeholders are people, and people respond well to a story. The role of the legal function is to guide a business in the best possible direction for its success. Telling a convincing story is a sure way to get people onboard with one's idea.

The nexus of law and storytelling is persuasion. The goal of any lawyer is to persuade a jury or other party to see things from their client's point of view, either settling, or if things go before a judge, winning over others. Narratives allow lawyers to persuade.

As Chris Rideout, author of 'Storytelling, Narrative Rationality, and Legal Persuasion', published by the Seattle University School of Law, notes, "Narratives are 'innate' ways of understanding and structuring human experience; this makes them inherently persuasive."

Let's look at the innate power of stories and humankind's age-old relationship with them. Storytelling is a fundamental part of human existence. For millennia, we have used stories to better understand ourselves and the world around us. Religious texts are essentially stories that have inspired faith.

The infamous 'Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype' was written by Jungian analyst, author and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés in 1992. The book shares stories she had collected over the years that pass on knowledge and wisdom about healing and navigating the world. Estés' book spent 145 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Surely a brilliant example of the power of storytelling.

So, how can in-house counsel employ narratives and legal persuasion techniques?

It all comes down to communication and giving people the full picture. In-house counsel are often time poor and as such get caught up in doing work rather than communicating well with the business. If General Counsel took the time to create a quarterly legal roadmap and present that to the company, the result is likely to be more legal buy-in.

Think of it like this. Often, when a regulatory change or potential breach comes to legal's desk, the conclusion reached is "this is too risky". Legal never fails to communicate to business stakeholders when something is not viable, yet what counsel often omit from their explanation is a solid reason why. A story, for instance.

Paint a picture of what could happen if the business pushes for legal risk. Tell a story of the potential ramifications of accepting a conditional offer or engaging in a joint venture with a company with a much higher risk profile than yours. In the same vein, create an alternate narrative.

Remember, legal counsel are more than just lawyers, they are also business people. Use your knowledge of the law and your company's industry to help brainstorm and spitball alternative options to a legal handbrake.

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