When I meet a potential new client for the first time, one of the things I always ask is what their goal is. One of the answers I often get is that they want someone to tell their story. However, I do not view telling a client’s story as a goal. I see it as a tool that can be used to achieve a goal. And social science research on persuasion has valuable lessons for how a client telling their own story can be quite a powerful tool indeed.
Hearing a story from the right messenger can be particularly compelling.
Social science research shows that storytelling is one of the most effective methods of persuasion. Ultimately, as lawyers, we are constantly trying to persuade. Accordingly, we must not only know and argue the law, we must be able to tell our clients’ stories in an effective way.
Moreover, research shows that it is not only the story that matters, it is also the messenger. Although sometimes I may be the appropriate messenger, oftentimes my clients are the most effective messengers of all. Therefore, as an advocate for employees, I not only tell my clients’ stories, I also help my clients get comfortable with telling their own stories.
What makes for a compelling story in the employment law context?
When I meet potential new clients, I listen for a narrative that makes logical sense and is well supported by specific facts.
Let’s take for example a client who believes she has been fired because of her pregnancy. What I would want to hear as part of a persuasive narrative in such a case would be a history of good work performance and no prior disciplinary history, an everything changed moment when she disclosed her pregnancy to her employer, and a non-credible alleged reason for the termination. This is exactly the type of story that could ultimately allow a jury to doubt the employer’s stated reason for termination and believe the real reason for termination was illegal discrimination. And of course, derogatory comments about pregnant workers would be like bonus points.
Not only are clients oftentimes the most effective messenger, sometimes they the required messenger.
There are certain times during the course of representation where I cannot speak on behalf of my client. For example, during a deposition the attorney for the other side gets to question my client under oath for an entire day. A client’s deposition testimony is crucial. You may not be able to win your case at a deposition, but you can certainly lose it. And, importantly, only the client can give their testimony at a deposition, not their legal counsel. Similarly, if a case goes to trial, I will not be the one testifying, my client will be. It is the client who will ultimately take the stand and tell a jury what happened. And to win, the client will have to tell their story in a way the jury can comprehend and find credible.
Additionally, in my opinion it is necessary for a client to tell their own story if a case receives media coverage. Although certainly not all lawsuits are of interest to the media – and I would say in fact the majority are not – some are. And if the story is of interest to the media, the media wants to hear from the client, not their attorney. Moreover, as speaking to the media is likely the closest a client can come to achieving the “goal” of having their story heard, it is important that the client does so effectively.
Overall, because clients are oftentimes the best messenger and sometimes the required messenger, it is incredibly important that clients feel comfortable telling their own story and are able to do so in a way that makes sense. The only way to do this is through practice. Accordingly, it is important for clients to start telling their own story from day one. If done right, a client telling their own story can be the most powerful persuasion tool of all