With a Foreword by Alex Ferrer, TV's Judge Alex
Why All Writers Need The Writer's Guide To The Courtroom
Maybe you have a novel, story, screenplay, or other writing project that has a character involved with the court system. Or you're a journalist writing a story about a court case. (Some law students and new lawyers have said they found it useful too, but we can't vouch for its exam-worthiness).
When you write, sometimes you don't know where your mind will take you. Maybe there's a character in your head but you haven't decided what to do with them. Or you have a plot that's stuck. The law is a great device for writers. It can add an obstacle, a sexy twist, or a fun character to your story.
The law can also accidentally drift into your plot, and laypeople who read your books, watch your shows, or read your articles will learn what they know about the justice system from you. Everything your characters touch during their day has something to do with the law. They wake up. Their alarm clock went through customs and is regulated. Their toothpaste has ingredients the law says it can and can't have. Their cereal box has legal requirements about how contents are listed and what claims it can make.
They drive to work in a car that doesn't explode when hit from behind because of civil lawyers. The gas pump they use has a fume guard because of the law. They go to work and, because of employment laws, have to be paid wages and overtime, can't be subjected to discrimination, can't be retaliated against because they objected to illegal activity.
When they make a purchase, the laws say what businesses have to disclose, what trade practices are unfair, what advertisements can say. Doctors have to treat them within acceptable practices or face a suit. Pharmaceutical companies have to test their drugs extensively before your characters can take them. Companies handling hazardous materials must dispose of them in particular ways.
When they get a divorce, your characters have to do it through the civil justice system. If a character dies, their will has to go through probate.
The claims characters can make in the law are almost infinite. Anything that can go wrong for them can end up in court. Whether in an accident, the workplace, a business, or in a relationship, the law can offer a slight plot twist or an entire plot. And if you're a journalist, you probably have legal issues in your stories regularly.
The purpose of The Writer's Guide to the Courtroom is to touch on some of the highlights, to give you a starting point for your research or just trigger an idea for your story. This book is for every writer who doesn't have a law degree, and even for those lawyer/writers who are writing outside their area of practice.
Most lawyers can't read or watch stories about law because the factual errors are too frustrating. Gross misunderstanding of how the justice system works can take away from even the best plot. There are over 1.1 million lawyers in the United States, so alienating them with mistakes that are easily corrected can affect your sales and ratings.
Ms. Ballman asked some lawyers and judges what really bugged them about how the civil justice system is portrayed in books and screenplays, and to talk about which ones really got it right. Some of their responses are quoted throughout this book to help you see the ways in which "getting it wrong" can alienate readers/viewers, whereas "getting it right" can enhance the story for your audience.
This is a guide for writers whose characters end up encountering the civil legal system.
Inside The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom
Here's just some of what you'll find to help inspire you and to help your characters navigate the civil justice system:
Chapter 1: The Characters Suggestions of courtroom characters you might use in your story, like bailiffs, court reporters, paralegals, judges, judicial assistants, runners/messengers, office managers, process servers, notaries, and of course, lawyers. Find out about their training, job duties, and how they're selected. And maybe, just maybe, what kinds of misdeeds they might have witnessed.
Chapter 2: Settings Where is your story et? Find out what a real legal setting looks like. Whether a tiny law office, government building, mediator's office or court chambers, your story will feel more real if you choose your setting well.
Chapter 3: Types of Lawyers Here's where to figure out what kind of lawyer you need in your story. Personality types, motivations, and ideas as to how to use attorneys practicing in areas you might not ever have thought of. From admiralty to consumer protection, from entertainment to worker's compensation, there's a lawyer type just right for your story.
Chapter 4: Legal Ethics Yes, they exist. Don't have your lawyer characters doing something obviously unethical, like switching sides mid-case, without showing some consequences. Find out what your characters are supposed to be doing, and what happens if they get caught breaking the rules.
Chapter 5: How Law Firms Run Who is in charge at a big firm? What kinds of lawyers do they have? What's the difference between a senior and a junior partner? How do law firms bill their clients? What differences might there be between the way a big firm and a solo practitioner prepare for trial? What do lawyers leaving a big firm have to learn to live without when they form a midsize firm?
Chapter 6: Pre-Suit What happens in an initial meeting with the client? What kinds of fee arrangements might your character make? What steps might lawyers take before suit is even filed?
Chapter 7: The Complaint What's in the document that begins a lawsuit? What does it look like? How does it get to the defendant? Where can a lawsuit be filed? Who can sue and be sued? Which court hears the case?
Chapter 8: Responses to the Complaint What will the defendant do once they receive the complaint, other than curse a lot? What kinds of motions get filed? What happens if they want to make claims against the plaintiff?
Chapter 9: The Authorities How do lawyers find out what the law is?
LOADS OF INFORMATION ON THE BASICS OF THE MAJOR TYPES OF LAW AND HOW YOU MIGHT USE THEM IN YOUR STORY
Substantive law chapters include
Chapter 10: Torts Negligence, assault, battery, false imprisonment, slander/libel, trespass, privacy, causation and damages
Chapter 11: Cases About Employment The types of claims that might come up if your characters work
Chapter 12: Professional Malpractice
Chapter 13: Business to Business Trademark, copyright, patent, unfair trade practices, contracts, partnerships, corporations, shareholder disputes
Chapter 14: Person to Business Landlord/tenant, consumer protection, real estate, admiralty, small claims
Chapter 15: Person to Person Divorce, auto accidents, probate
Chapter 16: Person to Government Civil rights, condemnation, zoning, government employment, government unions, elections, administrative law, abortions, civil unions and other gay rights issues
HOW CIVIL CASES WORK, FROM INTAKE TO COLLECTION
Chapter 17: Discovery How the lawyers get information. Find out how a deposition might be a better setting for your story than a trial, and how lawyers really get all those exhibits they use.
Chapter 18: Alternate Dispute Resolution Ways your story could get a final resolution without a judge. Where can your character throw a fit without going to jail? Find out about arbitration, mediation, collaborative law and private judging
Chapter 19: Trial Preparation What do lawyers have to do before they even walk into the courtroom on trial day? Jury instructions, verdict forms, exhibit and witness lists, subpoenas, and motions that might end the case or limit evidence
Chapter 20: Civil Practice Before Trial Ways your characters can interact besides trial. What happens at calendar call, motion calendar and specially set hearings?
Chapter 21: The Trial The way the trial in your story should happen. Jury selection, order of presentation, pretrial, bench versus jury trial, opening statements, witness examinations, objections, types of witnesses, what the jury doesn't see or hear, closing arguments, jury deliberations, verdicts, and what happens immediately post-trial.
Chapter 22: Post-judgment Just because your character won the trial, doesn't mean your story has to end. Motions, appeals, writs and collection.
About the Author
Donna Ballman is a Florida lawyer who has practiced in the civil courts for over 20 years. She's also a writer of young adult books. Her weekly feature on the Litopia Daily Podcast, The Debriefer, covers what's happening when the law and publishing meet every week, with over 20,000 listeners. She's also a regular guest on the Litopia After Dark Podcast. You'll find her blogging about writing and publishing news at The Write Report