Chapter 9 – A Theme for your Client’s Story

Learning Outcomes

  1. Be able to explain the purpose and nature of a shadow story.
  2. Be able to articulate a shadow story.

It is important to incorporate a theme in your client’s story. A brief will stand out from others with equally good legal arguments if you incorporate a theme that demonstrates your client suffered an injustice. The theme should be implied in your client’s story as told in the statement of facts, and when possible, reflected in your choice of rule illustrations, analogies, and policy arguments. However, attorneys often struggle with incorporating a theme because they get caught up in intricacies of their legal arguments. One way to find your theme is through the  “shadow story.”  [1]

Your shadow story does not appear in your brief. It is a tool to help you find your theme and draft your statement of facts. It tells your client’s view of the facts on paper without a filter, so it is complete with explicit emotional reasons, opinions, and judgments. A shadow story is what you would like to say, and what your client wishes you could say, but what you cannot say because it would undermine your credibility. Imagine you tell the story of what happened to a close friend. Use adjectives and adverbs freely. Think about if you were unfiltered how you would make the reader care about your client, how you would describe your client, and how you describe the other party.

For example, describing a landlord who knew the furnace in a rental did not function properly but did nothing to fix it, you might want to tell the reader that “the property owner is an SOB.” However, you would later revise that sentence for a statement of facts to show rather than tell the reader the landlord was an SOB. So that phrase is deleted and replaced with facts that show the property owner was an SOB. For example, “the defendant property owner never returned the plaintiff tenant’s calls. Even in the dead of winter when the furnace stopped working, the temperature inside the rental hovered at 42 degrees.” 

Use the “tell” words in the shadow story to find your theme. Recognize the reason(s) readers would care about what happens to your client that your shadow story gives them.

Let’s look at an example. Take the case of a child who was lead poisoned by exposure to deteriorating lead-based paint in the apartment her family rented. Here is an excerpt from her shadow story (reference to R. are citations to the record):

Defendant Lloyd Simon is Mariner City’s worst slumlord. His cruel disregard for his tenants is unmatched. Moreover, he is among the city’s most wealthy landlords. He owns approximately 525 dilapidated units in the city; all are infested with rodents and insects. His neglect is criminal. R.28 Among his absolute most uninhabitable properties is 67 Pine Street. R. 56-58. It’s there that Simon poisoned the plaintiff when she was an innocent child of only three years of age.

The theme that arises in the shadow story is a search for justice for an innocent child victimized by a greedy property owner. Now, here is an excerpt from the child‘s statement of facts, which filters out the bias and emotion present in the shadow story:


Defendant Lloyd Simon owns 525 rental units in Mariner City. In 2020, he earned nine hundred thousand dollars from the rents he collected. R. 97. He faces criminal charges related to lead paint violations in forty-four units. R. 110.  The County Health Department has cited him for unsanitary conditions fifty times in the last five years. R. 112. More specifically, in 2020 alone the Health Department found one hundred and fifty of his units were rat and insect infested. R. 113. That same year, the Health Department cited him for dangerous lead paint conditions at twenty-five of his units. R. 114 Among them was 67 Pine Street in Buffalo, New York, where the plaintiff was diagnosed with lead poisoning when she was three years of age. R. 25.


Exercise 9-1

Instructions: Watch the first six seconds of this video two times. (Warning: the video contains graphic violence.) It depicts an interaction between a protester and several police officers. The protester was denouncing police violence in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. The protest took place outside during a city-wide curfew. Assume that, as a result of the event, the protestor was injured and sued the officers for violation of his civil rights. The legal issue is whether the police used unnecessary force or whether their use of force was legitimate.

Watch it once from viewpoint of the lawyer who represents the protestor and then watch from the viewpoint of the lawyer who represents the officers​Then complete the exercise that follows. 

Now that you finished this chapter you should understand the nature and purpose of a shadow story, and be able to write a shadow story to find a theme for your brief. In the next chapter you will read about how to transform a shadow story into a persuasive statement of facts.

  1. See Robbins, Johansen and Chestek, Your Client’s Story: Persuasive Legal Writing, pp. 141-147 (Wolters Kluwer, 2d ed. 2019).