Was Colonel Sanders a Terrorist? An Essay on the Ethical Limits of Applied Legal Storytelling

24 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2010

Date Written: Fall 2010


This essay explores three characteristics of story that give rise to the concerns that storytelling is unfairly manipulative. To examine these concerns, I consider three stories - two about the law, one about an Irish tour guide. I use these stories to illustrate the three characteristics of story that may raise ethical concerns. There are, undoubtedly, other potential ethical land mines on the road of Applied Legal Storytelling, but I will discuss only these three. My hope is that these stories will encourage others to join in the conversation and that in doing so, we will develop a richer understanding of the appropriate limits of storytelling’s power in a legal context.

The first story illustrates that stories do not have to be true to be credible. Narrative coherence and fidelity, not truth, is what makes a story believable. The second story shows how stories are always told from a particular point of view. That necessarily means other points of view are slighted or not told at all. What we leave untold may often be as powerful as the story we tell. If we leave out too much, our story becomes misleading. Finally, the third story examines the ability of story to appeal to emotions as well as to logic. This seems at odds with our traditional concepts of objective, impartial justice. Indeed, it is perhaps this aspect of story - that it allows our emotions to override our objectivity - that creates the most strident objections to its “manipulative” power. Despite these potential pitfalls, I ultimately conclude that Applied Legal Storytelling does not create new ethical dilemmas. Rather, closer inspection of these ethical concerns shows that storytelling is consistent with our existing norms about the ethical practice of law.

Suggested Citation

Johansen, Steven J., Was Colonel Sanders a Terrorist? An Essay on the Ethical Limits of Applied Legal Storytelling (Fall 2010). Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors, Vol. 7, 2010, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1649840

Steven J. Johansen (Contact Author)

Lewis & Clark Law School ( email )

10015 SW Terwilliger Blvd.
Portland, OR 97219
United States
503-768-6637 (Phone)

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