True Stories

"The remarkable thing is how few lawyers seem to realize they are supposed to be storytellers at all."

By Jan BreslauerAugust 2, 2015

Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling by Jonathan Shapiro. American Bar Association. 281 pages.

WHEN I WAS ABOUT 12, my dad taught me the power of the pitch. Family finances had recently taken a huge hit, and we had to put my pony, Misty, up for sale. I’d written an ad that had run in the Livestock for Sale column of the classified ads in the local paper. I had mimicked the other ads in that section and come up with something I thought pretty much covered what prospective buyers would want to know. The ad went something like this: Pony of the Americas mare, 12.2 hands high, 10 years old, sound, trails, barrels, poles, experienced rider. Must sell.

Misty was a pip of a pony, but the ad got hardly any calls.

So one night, dad sat down next to me at the turquoise Formica counter in the kitchen — our usual spot for homework help and other important father-daughter conferences — to suggest a rewrite on the pony ad. He grabbed a pad of graph paper and a pen and started writing neat block letters in the little graph paper boxes, which made it easier to count the number of characters per line for the new classified ad. His version read something like this: Hi, my name is Misty. I have beautiful spots all over and people say I’m very pretty. I love to go on trail rides. I can run really fast and have won ribbons at gymkhana shows. Could you be my new best friend?

The phone rang off the hook, and we had our choice of wonderful homes for Misty. I’m sure she lived happily ever after. And I went on to a life of storytelling.

If my father was the first to teach me the power of artful narrative, I was later privileged to have other great teachers whose names I will drop in just a bit. Jonathan Shapiro is the most recent to remind me that how one tells a tale makes all the difference. His insightful and thoroughly entertaining book — Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling: Using Stories to Advocate, Influence, and Persuade — is now being reissued in paperback.

According to the author, “The purpose of this book is to get lawyers more comfortable with storytelling.” That’s a laudable mission. As an attorney, I think any lawyer who cares about convincing anyone of anything should read this book. Scratch that. Any person who cares about convincing anyone of anything should read this book.

Shapiro’s book is fun, ingeniously clever, bordering on sneaky, with a deceptively easygoing style. He weaves his own stories into examples of how best to tell a tale, and the tone remains conversational, even as he wields language with an ear for its music. He conveys complex concepts in simple, direct terms, and doesn’t pile on the verbiage or ply the passive voice, as so many attorneys are wont to do. Throughout the book, he shows you, even more than he tells you, how storytelling works. As he puts it, “If the book sometimes reads like an excuse to tell stories rather than as a manual on how to tell them, then I have done my job.”

None of this would soar if Shapiro didn’t have great stories. He’s constantly telling tales on himself, and, thankfully, he’s got some doozies. Like the one where he’s trapped with Harvey Weinstein in a town car crawling through Manhattan, on their way to a pitch meeting, and almost pukes. Or the one about the dial testing of the pilot for his first TV show, where one of the volunteers recruited from Universal CityWalk opined that it would be more interesting if one of the lawyer characters could fly. Flying lawyers notwithstanding, and lest you think he’s all showbiz, Shapiro has as many courtroom sagas as he does writers’ room yarns. It’s all of a piece, this life of law and TV-about-law, as in the episode he wrote for Boston Legal where they tackled a case that mirrored one the Supreme Court was about to hear, about Louisiana’s death sentence for a mentally disabled man. Shapiro’s genius as a raconteur is to make all of it friendly and accessible. You don’t have to be an attorney or a TV writer to get the point, but it doesn’t hurt.

Shapiro is both an entertainment litigator and a working TV writer-producer. His latest show is a crime drama, co-created and written with David E. Kelley, available on Amazon Prime in September. If you’re big on bona fides, he’s got a couple of Harvard degrees, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and went to UC Berkeley School of Law. He’s a former federal prosecutor and has chaired California’s Commission on Government Efficiency and Economy (which apparently is a real thing, not a joke). He’s also written and produced some top-drawer television, including work on The Practice, Boston Legal, Life, Justice, and The Firm. Shapiro has won a Peabody, two Humanitas awards, and an Emmy for his first short film, Fair and Free, featuring retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Not many people have been a showrunner, taught at USC School of Law, and embraced the use of the Oxford comma. For that alone, I like the guy.

Fortunately, Shapiro is able to keep his various pursuits in their places. He hasn’t forgotten that there’s one or two key differences between legal advocacy and writing for TV. “Stories lawyers tell are always based on the truth. If they are not, the lawyer will soon no longer be a lawyer.” Sometimes Shapiro even dissects his own stories, so you can see how the sausage is made. About the Weinstein story, he has this to say:

The story’s tone smacks of disingenuousness. Ostensibly about choking and messing up a pitch meeting, the story might also be read as the worst kind of humble brag, the sly boast hidden amid self-deprecation. Instead of enhancing my credibility, it may undercut it.

It isn’t all bad. The story does have logic to it. You don’t have to be a writer to understand the motives driving or the pressure he feels to make sure it all works out. It also has a nice pace; things move along.

But the story promises something that it does not deliver. The audience is prepared for a resolution it can anticipate, possibly, but does not receive. Because story elements are connected, inextricably intertwined, if you like, when one fails or a basic principle is ignored, chances are good that the story, whether it’s about failure or not, will fail to achieve its purpose.

After a couple of forewords and an introduction, Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling opens with a section called “The Storyteller’s Story,” in which our gentle hero is asked to present a panel at the 40th annual conference of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers (ABTL). Not an easy room, so of course he has some angst about it. Plus it proves a great excuse for avoiding the TV pilot he’s supposed to be writing. “Instead of trying to figure it out, I grabbed the ABTL invitation as an excuse to procrastinate, diving into my speech preparation like a fat man on a food binge.” Shapiro shares the walkabout of his avoidance, including extensive research, which ranged from rereading his own TV scripts and transcripts of his trials to secondary writing guides such as Robert McKee’s Story. He read novels as well. And if you follow his footnotes, you’ll see he also read a great deal of nonfiction, from Aristotle to biographies of Lincoln. Those footnotes, by the way, are a nod to the fact that attorneys must use the darn things, although this book would be just as convincing without them. Eventually, all of his musing led to a thesis:

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that storytelling applies to everything a lawyer does. We tell stories to get jobs and clients. We tell them to get promoted, in our dealings with bosses and opposing counsel, when we explain things to witnesses. We use storytelling techniques when we write a statement of facts for a motion or brief, create a chronology, draft interrogatories, or take depositions.

Sometimes we even get to tell stories to a judge or jury. Only lawyers on television go to trial on a regular basis. Most lawyers — most litigators — will see their doctor more often than they will see a jury. Thanks to high costs, uncertain results, and cuts in court budgets, the number of trials has been going down for years.

But throughout their career, all lawyers will have to present compelling narratives in and out of court. The types and forms of these stories are infinite. But the fundamental purpose of lawyer storytelling never changes. The practice of law is the business of persuasion.

Storytelling is the most effective means of persuasion. No other skill so elegantly or completely combines a lawyer’s ability to think, organize, write, and speak. This is why, everything else being equal, a credible lawyer capable of telling a well-reasoned story that moves the listener will always beat the lawyer who cannot.


The remarkable thing is how few lawyers seem to realize they are supposed to be storytellers at all.

The “two best storytellers” he ever knew, his most influential teachers, make their first appearance in this section of his book. They are Professor David Daube, an important biblical scholar who also taught at Berkeley Law’s Boalt Hall, and television writer-producer David E. Kelley, who gave Shapiro his first Hollywood gig. When Shapiro introduces Daube, he has to explain what made this man so influential in his field. “His massive body of work — on the rabbinical Jesus, the meaning and content of Jesus’s teachings, on the Hellenistic influences on both Jewish and Christian law — changed how much of the world’s religious and legal scholars would forever do their work.” Still not getting how that inspired Shapiro to a life of law and law-on-TV? “Daube introduced me to rhetoric. He also convinced me that it contains everything a storyteller needs to craft great stories.” Well, maybe. That, in any case, is the point Shapiro wants you to get from his intro to Daube. It’s probably a point he could have made with another story, or even another person. But the fact that Shapiro chose Daube to make this point is, well, the point.

My own Daube was the critic Stanley Kauffmann, with whom I studied at the Yale School of Drama. In criticism workshops and seminars, he would hold forth about movies and plays with such passion and understanding that one could not help but be inspired. He wrote with fervor and integrity, and persuaded the young me that criticism could matter. Like Shapiro’s Daube story, this is an intellectual coming-of-age story, a story about being inspired by a great teacher. Whether the ostensible topic was the ipsissima verba of Jesus or Wendy Hiller in Major Barbara is not the point. What matters is that most lawyers, at one time or another, probably had such a professor — someone who awakened them to the power of thought and language. But law school beats it out of us.

“Storytelling is a creative process. But creativity is not just discouraged in law school — it is banned.” Amen, brother Shapiro! Sing it loud! And may I just add, humor is also in very short supply in those hallowed halls. I salute Shapiro for having the chutzpah to say this. But I digress.

Shapiro is offering a way for lawyers to get back in touch with stories and humor (not jokes — he doesn’t want you to tell jokes, and especially not lawyer jokes). He models liberal use of self-deprecating wit and the artful quip. My personal favorite is Chapter 9, footnote 6: “Even if the author is my wife, Betsy Borns-Shapiro (the ‘Shapiro’ is silent).”

My own appreciation of the art of comedy was developed by working with the great Garry Marshall, king of film and TV comedy. He’s to me what David E. Kelly has been to Shapiro. Over the years, Garry has taught me a great deal about life, and not incidentally about how to make scripts funnier. I still learn from him every time we speak. But for all the tricks of the trade, I’ve gleaned the most by observing Garry. Much of comedy comes down to developing an ear, an instinct, or an intuition for what makes people laugh. For attorneys, the challenge is to put the law brain in park and remember, as Garry might put it, “how to be a person.” Listen to people, and hear what makes them tick. Relax and find your inner funny.

Shapiro’s formula for finding one’s inner storyteller comes courtesy of his mentor number three, Aristotle. He does an excellent job of distilling Aristotelian rhetoric, which still dominates our storytelling today, whether we realize it or not. Part two of Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling is devoted to a discussion of Aristotle’s three aspects of rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos. This is where Shapiro’s advice is at its most how-to, and its most readily utilizable.

Ethos, in Aristotle’s words, “depends on the personal character of the speaker,” on the speaker’s credibility. Shapiro says, “Ethos is about getting the listener’s attention, grabbing the audience, convincing them that you are a credible storyteller.” In the paragraph where I wrote about Shapiro’s credits, supra, I was establishing his credibility, but it’s not limited to that. Lawyers establish ethos with everything from office décor, to natty clothes, to electronic stationery. Of course accomplishments matter more than accoutrements, but don’t forget the power of costume, presentation, character, website, and a well-turned entrance.

Logos, which, as Shapiro tells us in a footnote, can mean either “word” or “logic” in the original Greek, in this context refers to law, facts, and reasoning — the meat of an argument. Pathos is the appeal to emotion, which as we know is often overused and abused. A good argument must have all three sides of the triangle: ethos, logos, and pathos. They don’t need to be in the same proportion, or all established at the same time, but you’ve usually got to have all three.

The third and longest section of Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling is about “The Process,” and this is where Shapiro gets down to praxis. He talks about the script, editing, performance, and even technology. He constantly intercuts expository or explanatory passages with anecdotes to illustrate his points, and even more often manages to blend advice and anecdote into one seamless story. It’s surprisingly entertaining for something that conveys so much useful advice. I could try and tell you about all of it, but I’ve been reminded by this book that it’s better to show than tell. I’ve also got Garry’s voice in my head, exhorting me to keep this “Short! Short! Short!” The best of Shapiro’s stories go on for pages. They are too long to quote effectively in a book review, so you will have to read them for yourself. Besides, enough with the spoilers. If Shapiro turns out to be the 21st-century Dale Carnegie, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. His book deserves to sell as well as How to Win Friends and Influence People. It is fortified with the wisdom of the ages and of the networks.

The study of how to tell a story is, of course, not new. Shapiro knew you were going to say that though, so he’s beaten you to the punch:

Finally, I note that other books have been written about storytelling. Many are more scholarly than this one. Indeed some are downright unreadable.

If dry is what you want, you have other choices.

May it please the court, Shapiro’s book is a must-read. 


Jan Breslauer is an arts and entertainment attorney in Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Jan Breslauer is an arts and entertainment attorney in Southern California.


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