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The Lawyer as Storyteller

People-centered litigation

Donovan Wood, Indiana University Maurer School of Law
Donovan Wood, Indiana University Maurer School of Law

My name is Donovan Wood, and I am entering my 3L year at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. At law school, I have been very active in habeas corpus work and in helping prisoners with legal research for their pro se claims. I came to OJPC hoping to expand on that work and to learn about OJPC’s work on prison conditions and reforming the justice system. I had an amazing opportunity to learn firsthand by helping to litigate a case for a prisoner with an Eighth Amendment claim against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

We worked until almost 3 a.m. the night before the hearing. It was to be my first appearance in federal court, and I wanted it to go exactly according to plan. Attorneys David Singleton and Ngozi Ndulue worked hard with Lynn Nouri and me, the interns on the case – writing, editing, rewriting, and coordinating themes and thoughts – to make us confident of what we would do the next day.

I had outlined my opening, bogging the message down in unnecessary detail. It was dull, and it did not allow me to strike the emotional tone that the case required. Despite being a case about medicine, the story should have been simple. Our client had a chronic medical condition. That condition causes him severe pain every day. The prison staff had tried treatment after treatment, but only one treatment worked. Despite the recommendations of doctors, in the prison and out, prison administration had refused to give him that treatment, and that caused him unnecessary pain and suffering.

When David saw the initial outline, with its near-robotic approach, he asked me to tell that story instead. Openings are not for argument, but they are for telling the court the facts in the most straightforward and powerful way. For me, that meant using the themes of the case to lead the court through four painful denials of this much-needed treatment.

So with David’s advice in mind, I rewrote the opening. Then I practiced it aloud to get the tone and the rhythm right, moving from forceful to conversational as the situation required. The goal, I learned, was not just to inform the judge, but to make her want to listen for a way to help my client.

The next morning, when I presented the opening, I knew it was powerful. Thanks to our work the night before, I learned to tell the judge not just what happened, but who it happened to, and how it made him feel. Though law school can sometimes feel mechanical, I am learning that law is always about working with people, which means that part of my job is always to make the judge or jury see the humanity in my client—prisoner or otherwise. OJPC helped me to express that humanity through my writing and my speaking.