Learning how to craft that story is something the Rutgers School of Law–Camden is working to incorporate into its students’ legal education.
“Storytelling really is part of general lawyering skills, just as much as legal analysis, logic, and argumentation,” says Ruth Anne Robbins, a clinical professor of law and director of lawyering programs at Rutgers–Camden. “We’re saying story structure and storytelling are part of all of that. Story and logic don’t conflict; one does not exclude the other. Everything lawyers write about, every argument they make, goes back to a theme and flows like a story.”
Robbins, of Cherry Hill, says that teaching storytelling goes beyond the traditionally-taught concepts to explore the role of narrative in law practice. It is essential to connecting with clients and engaging the judicial as well as courtroom audience.
“The first thing I tell my students is that they’re here to tell their client’s story,” Robbins says. “You don’t hire a lawyer to just craft syllogisms. Clients want their story told. It’s all part of how a lawyer can work through the client’s problems and understand what that client is looking for.”
The Rutgers School of Law–Camden offers a course to second- and third-year law students called “Advanced Legal Writing: Constructing Narratives,” but pieces of that course are also being incorporated into other classes. Students will revisit the topic in their legal writing, skills, and clinic classes.
The goal is to have the students use narrative reasoning persuasively, even when using other forms of logic-based reasoning, Robbins explains.
That’s not to say this is without controversy. There are still some law professors who think that it is something of a novelty and that it takes away from the traditional logic-based orientation of legal arguments.
“Even the phrase ‘storytelling’ has some resistance in the legal academy because it feels soft,” Robbins says. “Critics will tell you that legal storytelling sounds like it exists on the borderline of ethics because other types of stories involve the author’s imagination and made-up facts. But, there are many studies across several fields that have looked at the science of storytelling and conclude that it’s the best way for people to learn. We are hard-wired for story.”
Despite some skepticism, applied legal storytelling is beginning to find some traction in the world of legal education. Dozens of articles on the subject have been published over the last five years, and the third biennial legal storytelling conference was held earlier this summer at the University of Denver. Several Rutgers–Camden law professors have presented at the conference.
Robbins, a conference founder and organizer, says the conference series fosters innovative collaboration about the persuasive use of story across the spectrum of lawyering skills. In the history of the conference, presenters have included law professors, practitioners, judges, and even law students.
The lawyering professors at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden stress to their students that it’s not storytelling itself that’s a problem. It’s bad storytelling. Students are urged to spend time thinking about their technique. For example, it’s harder for lawyers to be effective storytellers when the audience is a judge because of the necessary subtleties that judges expect and demand. Judges want to know the story, but don’t want to feel emotionally persuaded and manipulated.
“Law students and lawyers have to understand that a story is a structure for delivering information without using words that tip it into a soap opera,” Robbins says.
Because effective storytelling goes hand-in-hand with persuasion, other courses in the Rutgers–Camden law curriculum likewise include it as a focal point. One popular standalone offering is the “Persuasion in Legal Writing” course. Elements of that course, including storytelling, will be incorporated this fall into the law school’s James Hunter II Memorial Moot Court Program.
“At Rutgers–Camden, we don’t save the client-centered lessons for the third-year clinic courses,” Robbins notes. “Rather, we are always trying to make sure that every lawyering course we offer — from day one — reminds students to think about the client’s story.”
Media Contact: Ed Moorhouse