Guest Post, Zari Panosian: Law and Story

An attorney recently told me that Law is theater.

I argue that it is more: Law, without formula or exact method, is art; in its practice and its teaching, in its briefs and motions and casebooks, and in its words upon words, Law is Story.

As a future attorney (i.e., a weary-eyed and anxiety-laden law student), and as a  reluctant writer (i.e., an accidental eavesdropper who scribbles half-sentences onto wrinkled, butter-yellow notes that disappear into the abyss that is my desk), I realize how deeply Law and Story are interwoven in theme, structure, and essence. This connection is surely the reason for all those courtroom dramas on television, on stage, and in film.

On a grand scale, Law encompasses ideals such as justice, fairness, liberty, equity, and truth—not dissimilar from themes embodied in the classic works of Dickens, Dumas, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, among others. Law and Story are reflections of one another.

The artistry of Law is present in the works of every opinion handed down from the courts. Each legal opinion has its own built-in Freytag triangle of facts (exposition), issue (inciting incident), procedural history (rising conflict), legal discussion (climax), and disposition (dénouement).

hammer-to-fall-1223606Certainly, some legal writing is terrible—run-on sentences, needless adverbs, and misplaced antecedents. But good legal writing is a concise and compelling story. The best legal writers somehow incorporate words (or gems) like punctilio, sacrosanct, or charlatan into the most serious of legal discussions, thus enriching and elevating legal writing into a form of literature. Despite his occasionally baffling legal conclusions, one such elegant storyteller is late Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who should be considered among the likes of Faulkner and Fitzgerald as one of the all-time-American-Greats. [See People v. Zackowitz, 254 N.Y. 192, 194, (1930): “The pistol came from the pocket, and from the pistol a single shot, which did its deadly work.”].

Law and Story are more than the Oxford commas that separate clauses, the vocabulary or syntax that they articulate, and the ideals they preserve and promote. Law and Story are connected in their very cores.

The most elementary rule of Story—in all its forms—is about one thing: conflict. In most every story, characters are forced into uncomfortable or unexpected situations and must take action. These characters make decisions that highlight their true selves, and no flaw or vulnerability escapes the strict scrutiny of a narrator’s watchful eye.

Law is no different. Characters are those human beings—plaintiffs, petitioners, defendants, respondents—with diverse backgrounds and unique needs and desires, who are faced with conflict, usually adversarial in nature, and they (and their agents/attorneys), are forced into action, be it a proactive or reactive sort.

Stakes and emotions are high. Every character is in need. There is a deadline, a ticking clock. The character only has so much control and relents to a form of fate: the statutes, the judge, the jury.

Defendants are punished; sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, sometimes not at all. Victims are vindicated or further victimized. The “good guy” wins. The “bad guy” wins. Somebody loses. Everybody loses. Justice does, or does not, prevail. In Story, “only the human is interesting.” Every aspect of Law derives from the human, in conflict or in need, and it is always interesting.

As a law student, I have already seen many of these individuals in varying levels of conflict: the law student slumping in his seat, head bowed as if in prayer, attempting to hide his irritation with a classmate’s answer; the near-tears-petitioner biting the insides of her cheeks, stopping herself from glancing at her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s cliché of a girlfriend seated in the back of the wood-paneled courtroom; the young female lawyer whispering to herself that she is a noble judge, an upright judge, a learned judge, a judge worthy of the mountainous role she is about to portray.

If you are a writer, pick up a casebook. Wander the halls of a court. Sit in on a hearing (for some courtroom drama). Spend time in the rotunda of a law school. Meet the characters. Pay attention to the facts. Listen to the unique plotlines. Observe the mannerisms. A day in such an environment reveals intimate details of human nature. These environments are what Story is made of.

See if you are not compelled, and if you cannot find Story in the Law.


Want to see how an example of how to find a story in the Law? If you are so inclined, read the facts of this case, and see if it sounds at all familiar:].


Zari Panosian
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