The very best lesson every lawyer can learn from the movie Rocky (besides how to get beaten senseless and keep punching).

Effective advocates understand that emotion-based storytelling is the key to persuasion at every stage of a legal proceeding.  The bad news for us is that law schools do not do deep dives into story technique.  The good news is we can find truly useful education from other seriously entertaining sources.  In case you are just tuning in, I am a criminal defense lawyer and award-winning filmmaker who makes short documentary videos for use in litigation (  Not surprisingly, my story gurus speak the language of cinema.   So, allow me to share with you an essential courtroom persuasion tip drawn from that world:

How to stay on track with “integration” – the storyteller’s foundation to every winning litigation presentation.

Good movies, like good trial or sentencing presentations, reveal a process UCLA Screenwriting Professor Richard Walter calls “integration”. Richard Walter, Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing, 112-114 (Plume 1988).  Prof. Walter asserts that in movies, every scene, line of dialogue, image, and sound must serve the story, move it forward, and illuminate its emotion-based themes.

We litigators must also live by the law of integration.  We sometimes take for granted that decision-makers will understand how all the pieces of our case fit together.  In fact, sometimes we forget to do the hard work to make them fit.

We do that by first figuring out the core of our litigation story (theory of the case), and then using that as our guiding light for every decision we make.  We must avoid veering off the path with wild tangents that do not advance our cause and move our story forward.  For example, a lawyer may leave a particularly brutal or entertaining piece of cross-examination on the cutting-room floor if she knows the questions, fun as they would have been to ask, would not further the story of her case.

That is not to say litigation presentations cannot have multiple story lines.  In fact, most great movies have “sub-plots.”  However, with sub-plots, the concept of integration becomes even more essential.  This means each story line must clearly connect to and strengthen the theory of your case.

The classic film Rocky provides an example of a perfectly integrated sub-plot. Rocky is the story of a down-and-out fighter who is given a chance to finally make something of himself.  The “theory” of this movie is that with hard work and belief in one’s self, a person can overcome obstacles and achieve seemingly impossible goals.

The major sub-plot involves Rocky’s romance with Adrian, an introvert living with her tyrannical brother Paulie.  Here too, Rocky battles against overwhelming odds to win Adrian’s heart. The fight against Apollo Creed and the fight to win the girl are therefore “integrated”; they both directly advance the main theory or argument of the story.  Take a look:

This scene, in which Rocky must convince Adrian to embark on their first date, reveals a perfectly “integrated” subplot. [The use of this short segment comports with the “fair use doctrine” and is for educational purposes only.]

Rocky’s task of coaxing a painfully shy and emotionally distraught Adrian out of her locked bedroom is seemingly insurmountable.  But our hero is not one to back down from a challenge.  Did you notice that Rocky even telegraphs “integration” to the boxing ring by taking a few practice air punches before approaching Adrian’s closed door?  This is just one more “title shot” for our hero.  Indeed, winning the love of Adrian ends up being his greatest victory.

Sample Case Application

Let’s look at a real-life example of integration at work in sentencing mitigation.  Angela S. was caught transporting drugs in her car across the U.S. – Mexico border.  The theory of mitigation focused primarily on telling the story of why she made the unfortunate choice to do this.  She did it out of fear.  Her recruiters made not-so-veiled threats about what could happen if she refused, even stating they knew where she lived and the names and ages of her children.

The mitigation theory also had a subplot– the story of how she was a single mother who was unflinchingly devoted to her children.  Ordinarily, however, the “please give me a break because I’m a good parent” argument will get you nowhere fast.  The judge will almost always respond, “If you were such a good parent, you would not have put your family at risk by doing something as dumb and dangerous as this.”  Here, there was an even bigger problem:  the accused had her children in the car when she was doing the smuggling.  The government viewed this as an aggravating factor, making the case that she was using her kids as cover to more easily pass through border inspection.

Her lawyer knew the truth of her story was much different than that.  The father abandoned the family long ago.  She had no family or social support.  She was alone in the world.  Moreover, given the threats made by her recruiters, the idea of leaving her children alone and exposed for any length of time was terrifying.  She therefore brought her children with her everywhere she went.

Through the process of integration, her lawyer shifted the story from one of manipulative opportunist to protective mama bear.  This not only explained the bad facts of the offense, but made it much easier for the judge to see that justice would not be served by taking this particular mother away from her children.

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