This is Not the Whole Truth: The Ethics of Telling Stories to Clients

34 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2008 Last revised: 17 Mar 2008


This is not the whole truth. Rather, it is a tale of deception. More precisely, it is a reflection on storytelling and the law. It begins from the premise that stories, by their nature, can never tell the whole truth. Stories are told from a point of view, and that point of view necessarily limits the story. If told from another point of view, the truth of the story would change. To at least some degree, then, stories are incomplete analytical tools, and as such, deceptive. Despite the incomplete nature of stories, they can be powerful tools of persuasion. This creates a dilemma: when does the deception inherent in storytelling make storytelling an inappropriate tool of persuasion in a legal context? This article seeks to define the limits of legal storytelling generally and of storytelling to clients in particular.

Part II explores how the American Bar Association (ABA) not only tolerates deception, but in some cases requires it. The second inquiry, discussed in Part III, is storytelling's ability to inform and persuade in a way that rational analysis cannot. Part III of this paper explores how stories persuade through appealing to the listener's emotions, or, in Aristotelian terms, pathos. The final inquiry regards lawyer-client relations. Part IV explores the inherent conflict between a lawyer's responsibility to counsel a client and a client's own autonomy.

Keywords: storytelling, narrative, ethics, clients, truth, model rules, professional responsibility, client autonomy

Suggested Citation

Johansen, Steven J., This is Not the Whole Truth: The Ethics of Telling Stories to Clients. Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 38, p. 961, 2006, Lewis & Clark Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-6, Available at SSRN:

Steven J. Johansen (Contact Author)

Lewis & Clark Law School ( email )

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Portland, OR 97219
United States
503-768-6637 (Phone)

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