WMU law school teaches storytelling techniques


Students who were enrolled in Associate Dean Nelson Miller’s summer workshop writing series at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School finished the workshop with more than just a credit toward graduation.

They left as authors.

The workshop had students write short stories and submit them at the end of the summer, Matthew Levin, a third-year law student at Cooley Law School, said.

“We weren't sure what quality (of stories) we would get,” Levin said. “It had to be high-quality work because I know Dean Miller, as the editor, wasn’t just going to put something out there. It had to be high quality. I think (Miller and I) were surprised by how high quality the submissions actually were.”

Seven students, five professors and three practicing attorneys wrote a collection of stories and published the book, “Lawyers Storytelling: A Sacred Craft,” in August.

The book has 300 pages, 27 stories and 15 authors. Miller said the fictional stories are about traditional cases, such as trial, criminal, and civil stories and futuristic law. One story, Miller said, was written by a law student who wrote about law 200 years from now and what it might be like.

“The point was to (give the students) the opportunity to learn about the very important skill of storytelling and also to educate the public about this very important skill of lawyers, how we help clients and others tell their stories,” Miller said.

The second part of the title “Sacred Craft” came from an attorney, who was in the workshop and wanted to show lawyers have a critical role of humanizing a client’s story in very serious cases, such as the defense of federal criminal charges and state charges.

“You have to be able to help juries, judges and others understand who these individuals are who face important matters and crises, and help those who make decisions about their lives understand what their (clients’) lives are like, how they went about their lives and the values they hold,” Miller said. “Lawyers rely heavily on their ability to communicate, and that includes telling a client’s story.”

One of the stories Levin wrote is called “Trust,” which is under a pseudonym, Sam Prescott. Levin said the story was based on an experience he had working in the State Legislature.

“My protagonist in the story is a lawyer, but he is also licensed as a private investigator,” Levin said. “Michigan law does provide, for licensed attorneys, an avenue for them to obtain a private investigator license. He gets drawn into a situation, where there were some bizarre murders happening in the state years back and it is many years later — all of a sudden, they are happening again. He gets drawn into it.”

Miller said there also were stories about personal relationships in law. One of the stories, Miller said, was about a wife discovering her lawyer husband has dementia.

“She wrote a very tender story about how her prominent and skilled husband was losing his capacity to be a lawyer,” Miller said.  

Miller said Summer Workshop Series Writing was the first to publish a book. There were three workshops including one in June and two in July. It included students, licensed lawyers and law professors. The workshops were broken into three-hour segments.

Students spent the first hour listening to speakers, such as lawyers, law and English professors.

The second hour was a discussion of the speaker’s topic and the third hour was spent going over their individual stories in small groups or pairs.

Levin said the writing process was very long, and it included many revisions and constructive criticism.

“In the workshop, we went through a lot of constructive criticism, which I found very helpful. When I was younger, I think I had a little more of a thin skin when it came to that, but nowadays, I appreciate it more.”

But the workshop wasn't primarily about writing stories; Levin said professors also educated them on the legality of publishing.

“There were a lot of lessons not only surrounding how to put together a story but what happens when you want to move forward with it, market it and getting it out there, especially today, when there are so many avenues for self-publishing.”

After the painstaking drafts and revisions, Levin said it was one of the most rewarding experiences of his academic career.

“I took writing classes as an undergrad at Michigan State and in grad school, as well, but nothing compares to this because all the participants were so tuned into what we were doing, and we got the final product from that workshop sitting on (our) desk,” Levin said.

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