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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Tell Us a Story

From Washington Lawyer, October 2005

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

He had likewise projected, but at what part of his life is not known, a work to shew how small a quantity of REAL FICTION there is in the world; and that the same images, with very little variation, have served all the authours who have ever written.
—Dr. Samuel Johnson, recorded in
Boswell’s Life of Johnson

The moviemakers early on discovered that the number of basic plots is limited. You need only fast-forward your DVD player through the movie previews and you will see most of the basic plots speed by, one after another, in the space of five minutes.

In the 1935 play Boy Meets Girl a cynical Hollywood writer is talking to an obtuse leading man who cannot follow a simple story line. The writer makes it simple: “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl.” The writer says, as an aside, that it is a story that has become the great American fairy tale. It sends the audience back home in a happy frame of mind.

Christopher Booker, in his recent book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, alleges that all stories conform to seven basic plots that have ancient origins and are present in one form or another in all cultures. They appear in the Bible and other religious writings. They are used over and over again in movies, plays, and novels and on HBO.

Booker gives each a name. He begins with what he calls Overcoming the Monster, the story in which the hero destroys the bad man. See James Bond, King Kong, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars. Next is Rags to Riches, in which the inconspicuous hero, starting out with nothing, ends up with everything. See Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush and Dickens’s Great Expectations and David Copperfield. There is the Quest story, in which the hero travels a dangerous road in search of hidden treasure. See Lord of the Rings and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is the Voyage and Return story. See Robinson Crusoe and Orson Welles in The Third Man. There is the Comedy story of humorous contradictions, and mistaken identities. See The Marriage of Figaro and the Marx Brothers. There is the Tragedy story, where things don’t happen for the best and the hero, because of a fatal flaw, ends a failure. See Bonnie and Clyde and Anna Karenina. And finally there is the Rebirth story. See Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov faces up to his guilt in murdering the moneylender and commences his own rehabilitation.

Booker says the pattern in each story engages something deep within us. We use the story to translate the irrational chaos that surrounds us into a comforting fiction that says life proceeds on rational lines and good generally prevails over evil.

Booker says each basic plot involves conflict. We lawyers are experts on conflict. We live the adversary system. One against the other. This raised a question in my mind as to what the basic legal plots are. Why do people litigate?

To get the answer I called a friend who spent the last 30 years trying high-intensity cases of all kinds. He took a detached and, I would say, amusing cynical stance. He came up with this evaluation of the basic legal plots, the reasons why people involve themselves in lawsuits: greed, 60 percent; vindictiveness, 15 percent; irrationality, 10 percent; desperation, 10 percent; and an honest misunderstanding, 5 percent.

He said lawyers get a distorted view of greed because most litigants want the lawyer to get them money or to protect them from someone else’s getting their money. All this talk about who gets the money leads lawyers into believing that everybody does nothing but think about money. All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.

He said greed lurks in the subjects taught in law school. As an example, the law of contracts. The elements of an enforceable contract can be put in one volume. Why does a leading text on contracts run to 30 volumes? It is because all the cases discussed are about the way greedy people try to get an advantage. Greed figures in wills and estates. The survivors, who earned none of the money in the estate, fight, as a matter of principle, to the last dollar.

My friend closed by saying that in many of his cases the lawyers were the only honorable people connected with the dispute. It comes back to the statement that the lawyer is never as bad as his client wants him to be.

There are two other basic legal plots I wish to mention. One involves a type who often finds his way to a lawyer’s office. He enjoys being alone in the world to exploit the opportunities that come his way or that he develops as he moves from one scheme to another. He needs legal advice because he has trouble marking off the difference between right and wrong. Greed for money is not his consuming interest. His wish is to use his ingenuity. One writer has labeled such a type as an adventurer in capitalism.

The other basic legal plot, the one that redeems it all, is where the lawyer corrects an injustice. It is one of life’s great moments. It is, to use Booker’s words, overcoming the monster, defeating the bully.

Lawyers use stories as a dramatist does. The trial is a play based on a dramatic story line that the lawyer extracts from his client’s recitation of names, dates, places, documents, impressions, and accusations. The story line, once settled on, determines what is relevant and what is irrelevant. This requires judgment of a high order. It determines the opening statement, the witnesses to be called, and the closing argument.

The story ends the old-fashioned way, like a well-made play with no doubts about who won and who lost. The jury sees to that by rendering its verdict.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.