Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Thinking Thursdays: Using Screenwriting Techniques to Tell More Compelling Stories

Margaret Hannon, guest blogger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School

***

Storytelling is an integral part of a lawyer’s work, particularly for appellate lawyers. One critical aspect of effective storytelling is structure—and when it comes to structuring an effective story, lawyers can learn a little something from screenwriters.

In Teresa Bruce’s forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Writing Institute, The Architecture of Drama: How Lawyers Can Use Screenwriting Techniques to Tell More Compelling Stories, Professor Bruce proposes that “lawyers build their stories in the same way Hollywood writers do.” Just as screenwriters follow a formula, lawyers should do the same: as IRAC is to argument sections, SCOR is to fact sections.

Professor Bruce’s article builds on existing storytelling literature, which approaches narrative theory from several different perspectives. The structural perspective uses a pragmatic or pedagogical approach, arguing that “[a] large part of telling an effective story is the order in which the reader presents information.”[i] Scholars in this area argue that an effective story structure helps judges and juries understand and remember information, and the story that flows most logically will be the story that seems most probable. As a result, good story structure can increase a client’s chance of winning.

Professor Bruce’s article takes the structural approach to narrative theory a step further by introducing the SCOR structure. Many lawyers will be familiar with the writing stages identified by Professor Betty Flowers: Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge. The Architect stage is where writers focus on “large, organizational, paragraph-level thinking.” The SCOR template gives writers a “flexible, generally applicable template they can use each time they tackle a new case.” This enables “lawyers to skip the Architecture stage entirely when writing a facts section (as IRAC enables them to do when writing an argument section).” Ultimately, Professor Bruce’s hope is that using SCOR will make it easier for lawyers to write their clients’ stories more coherently, which will result in clearer, more compelling, and more convincing stories.

So, what is SCOR? To explain SCOR, Professor Bruce begins with the classic three-act story structure, “the basis of Western storytelling.” Act I, the Setup, establishes the protagonist’s “status quo.” Act II, the Confrontation, breaks the status quo and takes the protagonist on a journey to a point of climax. Act III, the Resolution, introduces the protagonist’s “new normal” and resolves any unanswered questions. Taking this basic story structure a step further, advanced story structure builds additional milestones into each act to create an overarching “story arc” that provides “rising tension throughout the first and second acts and falling tension during the third.” Professor Bruce illustrates both the basic and advanced story structure through a classic movie, The Wizard of Oz.

Professor Bruce then translates this traditional formula into legal writing: Setup, Confrontation, Outcome, Resolution, or SCOR. As in advanced screenwriting, within each act, additional milestones help to give the story added structure and keep audience members engaged.

First, the Setup, Act I, humanizes the client by establishing the client’s life and status quo before the “bad event” of the litigation. Second, the Confrontation, Act II, is the “meat” of the story—it introduces the client’s antagonist and sets out the pivotal (i.e. outcome-determinative) facts. While the opposing party will often be the antagonist, for some clients, the antagonist will be subtler. For example, for less-sympathetic clients, the antagonist might be “mental-health problems, addiction, childhood trauma, or poverty.”

The third and fourth components of the story are the Outcome and the Resolution, Act III. The Outcome is “the end of the protagonist’s quest,” while the Resolution is “where the audience gets closure.” This is the most difficult section for legal writers because a “lawyer cannot simply resolve her client’s story . . . the way a screenwriter can.” Instead, the lawyer may invite closure by inviting “the judge or the jury to resolve the storyline in a way that favors the client.”

To illustrate how this structure works and why it is effective, Professor Bruce uses the statement of facts in the Petition for Certiorari in Miranda v. Arizona. This statement of facts helps illustrate the SCOR structure, but also shows how the structure “can work even for a largely unsympathetic defendant, one who has been convicted of a violent crime.” In addition, Professor Bruce points out that other landmark briefs use a similar story structure.

I encourage practitioners, legal writing professors, and law students to read Professor Bruce’s article. In the article, she provides a more in-depth discussion of advanced storytelling structure, including the milestones within each act. SCOR provides a practical, accessible, and memorable way to help lawyers incorporate storytelling into their legal writing. And if lawyers can make their clients’ stories more accessible to their audiences, those stories will hopefully also be clearer, more compelling, and more convincing.

Special thanks to Alison Doyle for her help with this blog post.

[i] Brian J. Foley & Ruth Anne Robbins, Fiction 101: A Primer for Lawyers on How to Use Fiction Writing Techniques to Write Persuasive Fact Sections, 32 Rutgers L.J. 459, 475 (2001).

September 27, 2018 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Film, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Television, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Making a Murderer Dassey Case Headed to En Banc 7th Circuit

Somehow I missed this news last week, but the Seventh Circuit has announced that it will rehear, en banc, the case Dassey v. Dittman.  If you watched the Netflix documentary "Making a Murder," you were probably shocked by Brendan Dassey's conviction, which certainly appeared coerced.  

A split panel of the Seventh Circuit had upheld the district court's decision overturning Dassey's conviction.  Now the whole Seventh Circuit will have a chance to opine.  Eugene Volokh's post has some statistical information about the Seventh Circuit, including the number of judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents and the gender make-up of the court. Based on the actions of the panel, Prof. Volokh doesn't think that the typical stereotypes apply to this case. This is certainly a case that will attract significant media attention, so it will be interesting to see how it comes out on appeal.

August 7, 2017 in Appellate Advocacy, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Film | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Best Appellate Movies

It was a snowy/icy/cold weekend in Virginia.  In fact, I saw something on Sunday that said there is snow on the ground in every state except Florida. Sounds like perfect weather for a movie.

There are several lists out there on the best legal movies, including one by JD Journal and another by the ABA Journal. Most of the greats, however, are courtroom dramas.  Think about it, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Few Good Men, My Cousin Vinny--all courtroom dramas.  

So, what are the best Appellate Legal Movies.  I have combed the lists and offer these suggestions (with help from this list by Missouri appellate attorney Jonathan Sternberg):

  1.  Reversal of Fortune (1990).  This movie is on the ABA Journal list and focuses on the true story of Claus von Bulow who was accused of the attempted murder of his wife. Alan Dershowitz and a group of Harvard Law students helped with von Bulow's defense.
  2. Amistad (1997).  This movie makes all of the lists and follows the 1841 case about a slavery ship uprising.
  3. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). In addition to following the rise of Larry Flynt, this film follows the famous First Amendment case, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell.
  4. Bridge of Spies (2015).  Sternberg had this movie on his list.  I had forgotten that the movie briefly covered Rudolf Abel's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  This really was an interesting movie, even though the legal aspect was pretty minor.
  5. The Pelican Brief (1992). Every legal movie/book list needs to include at least one John Grisham book.  This is a great film that qualifies under the appellate category given the fact that it involves the murder of Supreme Court justices.

I am sure that I have missed some.  What is your favorite appellate movie?

January 9, 2017 in Film | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Snow Day Inspiration: Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law

Ibrahim-index-of-african-governance-rule-of-law.svg (2)Sometimes a good snow day gives us a rare chance to slow down and reflect on life, or just to recharge our batteries (after digging out, of course). If you'd like a little professional inspiration for your teaching or that tough appeal you're working on, take a few minutes to learn about Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe and the subject of a  new documentary by Lorie Conway, Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law.

To get acquainted with her work and story, get inspired by the short, three-minute film trailer or a longer, nine-minute trailer; visit the documentary homepage; or absorb an in-depth Q&A session hosted by the International Bar Association

Hat tip: The Guardian, Courage of Zimbabwe Human Rights Lawyer Captured in Film

Image: Stephen Morley (Based on File:BlankMap-Africa.svg) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons ("A map of Africa showing countries' scores on the Safety and Rule of Law category of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance") 

February 5, 2014 in Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, Film, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 2, 2013

HBO Puts a Spin on Clay v. United States

If you subscribe to HBO, you might find Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight a very interesting movie to watch.  Besides the fact that it chronicles, in part, the sometimes politically-controversial boxing career of Cassius Clay Muhammad Ali,  it takes a look inside the deliberations behind Ali's court fight against being drafted into to U.S. Military.  

The case Clay v. United States begins with Clay losing an administrative appeal.  While Clay argued that he met one or more elements of the 3-part test (1. that he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form, 2. that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief, and 3. that this objection is sincere) used to determine whether an individual's objection to being drafted is afforded religious freedom protection, the Justice Department, then headed by Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, believed that his objection was rooted in political rather than religious ideology.   As such, he was tried and convicted of willfully refusing to be drafted.  After losing on appeal, the case finds its way to the Supreme Court.

By the time the case arrives on the Court's doorsteps, Thurgood Marshall is now a Justice and, due to his involvement at the beginning of the case, recuses himself.  The movie uses this as an opportunity to showcase Justice Marshall as a proponent of integration and a believer that Muhammad Ali is promoting a segregationist agenda as a member of the Nation of Islam (black Muslims).  

The movie also dramatizes the inner workings of the Supreme Court.  The movie follows a seemingly fictional and liberal-minded law clerk championing the Court's consideration of hearing the Clay case.  The law clerk, from Missouri Law, is met with opposition from not just John Harlan, the Justice supervising him, but also from elitist and more conservative fellow law clerks with higher pedigrees from Harvard, Yale and Columbia Law.  

Initially there is great opposition to hearing the case, but eventually the Court agrees.  After oral argument, the Justices seem to be headed towards a 5-3 decision affirming the conviction.  However, the protagonist law clerk does some exhaustive research, finds a case that seems to mirror the premise in the Clay case but involves the Jewish faith, and then approaches Justice Harlan with a draft of an opinion in favor of Clay - regardless of the 5-3 decision and the fact that John Harlan had charged the law clerk with drafting an opinion against Clay.  After looking at the possible racial impact of a decision against Clay and the Muslim religion when the facts seem to suggest that his conscientious objector argument should be successful, the Justices eventually reverse course and come to terms on how to carry out issuing an 8-0 decision.  The last twist to the movie chronicles how they crafted the decision so that it would not create precedent, but would be narrowly construed to the facts presented.  Specifically, since the Appeals Board issued its decision without clearly articulating the grounds for the decision (which elements of the conscientious objector test Clay failed to meet), the Court ruled that such an ambiguous conviction could not stand.  

The movie is interesting in how it shows the "case behind the case."  Watching the deliberations of the Justices, the jockeying of the law clerks and their role in influencing the minds on the Court, and the politics that came into play in what should be a non-political judicial branch was fascinating.  It really makes one think about the fact that advocates need to focus on not just persuading the panel of neutrals, but also must keep an eye towards how to influence the law clerks and the other people with political, social, or other interests in the case outcome.  

If you get the opportunity, do take time to watch this movie.  It will be time well spent.

December 2, 2013 in Current Affairs, Film | Permalink | Comments (0)