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57 S.D. L. Rev. 239 (2012)
Storytelling for Lawyers

handle is hein.journals/sdlr57 and id is 259 raw text is: STORYTELLING FOR LAWYERS

JONATHAN K. VAN PATTENt
INTRODUCTION
There are great souls out there who have extraordinary powers of
persuasion. If we have been fortunate, we have encountered several of them
over the course of our lives. In ways unique to each, they combine authority and
wisdom. They appear in different roles-parents, relatives, teachers, pastors,
and even political leaders. Their wisdom has shaped us fundamentally, in ways
that are discernible long after they are no longer part of our lives. I did not
always understand what my favorite law school professor was saying, but his
words had power that pulled me along as I was trying to understand. In the
words of Jack Nicholson, he made me want to be a better man.1 I do not know
how to teach this. It is a gift and we are very fortunate when we are exposed to
it, and have the maturity to recognize it.
For the great majority of us who do not have this gift, persuasion is a harder
task. We encounter skepticism and resistance. If we are to be successful in
persuading someone, we must first recognize that it is his or her decision, not
ours. In contrast with the great teacher, the process cannot be from the top
down. It must work from the ground up. If lawyers have a general problem in
the art of persuasion, it is that they preach too much, but lack moral authority.
They do not recognize that the movement toward a decision comes primarily
from within the decision-maker. This does not mean we cannot be great
persuaders; we simply have to do it by other means.
One of the principal techniques of persuasion comes through understanding
the art of storytelling. Storytelling is primal.2 It can show the way to a common
ground that ties in to the basic values of the listener. We all grew up with
stories. There is a deep psychological need here. I sense, but cannot fully
describe, the importance of stories in my childhood. I am able to see more
clearly, however, the importance of stories in the development of my own
children. My oldest, now a pathologist in Minneapolis, would absorb words and
Copyright © 2012. All Rights Reserved by Jonathan K. Van Patten and the South Dakota Law Review.
t Professor of Law, University of South Dakota School of Law. I wish to thank Kasey Wassenaar, Class
of 2012, for her very able assistance on this project. I also thank Derek Nelsen, Class of 2009, for his
sharp-eyed editing of this Article.
1. Memorable Quotes for As Good As It Gets (1997), IMDb.com,
http://www.imdb.com/title/ttOl 19822/quotes (last visited Apr. 18, 2012).
2. Gerry Spence described storytelling in this vivid passage:
Of course it is all storytelling - nothing more. It is the experience of the tribe around the fire,
the primordial genes excited, listening ... the shivers racing up your back to the place where the
scalp is made, and then the breathless climax, and the sadness and the tears with the dying of the
embers, and the silence.
Gerry Spence, 72 A.B.A. J. 63 (April 1986).

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