What’s Your Archetype?

Posted on Categories Legal Practice, Legal Scholarship, Legal Writing

Saint_george_raphaelThis past year I came across a terrific article by Professor Ruth Anne Robbins on using archetypes to develop a client’s story.  (Harry Potter, Ruby Slippers and Merlin: Telling the Client’s Story Using the Characters and Paradigm of the Archetypal Hero’s Journey, 29 Seattle U. L. Rev. 767 (2006)).  An archetype is an innate prototype, or epitome, of a personality.  The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung advanced the theory that some personality types or characteristics are universally recognized.  The American mythologist Joseph Campbell was influenced by Carl Jung’s work on archetypes and considered how archetypes manifest in mythology.  Professor Robbins examines how Jung’s and Campbell’s theories can be used in a practical litigation and courtroom setting.   

In her article, Professor Robbins suggests that archetypes, as universally recognized symbols, can be used to create a compelling image of a client.  As Professor Robbins states, “Because people respond — instinctively and intuitively — to certain recurring story patterns and character archetypes, lawyers should systematically and deliberately integrate into their storytelling the larger picture of their clients’ goals by subtly portraying their individual clients as heroes on a particular life path.”  (768-69.)  The key to using archetypes is to tap into a judge or jury’s unconscious to align the client’s story with a hero’s transformative journey. 

How do you put your client on the path of a hero’s journey? 

The first step is to assign a “cast of characters,” and the most important roles are that of the judge (or jury) and the client.  (775.)  Through the story you tell of your client, the client will transform him or herself into a hero.  The benefit of telling a client’s story as a hero’s journey is that heroes, like real life clients, have flaws.  Heroes are not perfect; in fact, what makes the story compelling is that the hero must work through or conquer those flaws.    

The article lists and describes twelve different hero archetypes from which to choose, such as a “caregiver” (caring for a family against all odds), or an “every person/orphan” (searching for an identity).  (778.)  Professor Robbins recommends casting a judge as the hero’s mentor.  In archetypal stories, a hero like Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins needs a mentor like Dumbledore or Gandalf.  The article also explains how to cast other characters or identity traits such as the villain (not necessarily the opposing party, Professor Robbins notes) and the guardian.

Besides casting the characters, a lawyer needs to understand the stages of an archetypal hero’s journey:  the departure, the initiation, and the return.  The departure is the start of the quest with a “road of trials.”  (792-93.)  Departure reminds me of Frodo Baggins’ trek to the town of Bree, where he first encounters a Ringwraith.  During the initiation, a hero learns lessons to help him or her “to reach the ultimate goal.”  (795.)  During this phase, the hero faces his or her fears and finally slays the proverbial “dragon.”  Those hearing the story of initiation are reminded of their own mortality in the hero’s “ritual injury or dismemberment.”  (796.)  In the return, the hero is transformed and “achieves bliss” — “the hero has conquered the fears that previously hindered him or her from growth as an individual.”  (800.)

The hero’s journey can work very well with the traditional concept of building a theory of the case.  The theory of a case melds narrative/storytelling with the law to create a cohesive case presentation.  The hero’s journey strengthens the narrative component of a case.  Has anyone tried to use a hero’s journey in developing a case?  What storytelling techniques do you use?

One thought on “What’s Your Archetype?”

  1. Great post, Melissa. The best litigators are really just good storytellers. My personal experience with archetypes was as a defense lawyer, however, so I am more familiar with the use of negative archetypes to tarnish the plaintiffs. I was in the business of creating villains rather than heros.

    My clients were defense contractors who faced criminal prosecution for defraunding the U.S. government by selling defective weapons systems. In strategizing our defense, we always took pains to characterize the employee whistleblower who alerted the government (and who stood to gain a substantial “bounty” if the government prevailed) as a “disgruntled employee” who had a “personal grudge to settle.”

    We played up the facts that suppoted this negative archetype, and we downplayed any facts to the contrary. We could observe how the judge’s reaction to our legal arguments was influenced by whether the judge accepted our characterization of the whistleblower’s motivation or not. I suppose the lesson here is that a lawyer should never neglect the storytelling function as they argue their case, because that risks leaving your opponent’s story as the only archetype presented to the judge (or jury).

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