The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers

Why All Writers Need The Writer's Guide To The Courtroom

Maybe you have a novel, story, screenplay, or other writing project that has a character involved with the court system. Or you're a journalist writing a story about a court case. (Some law students and new lawyers have said they found it useful too, but we can't vouch for its exam-worthiness).

When you write, sometimes you don't know where your mind will take you. Maybe there's a character in your head but you haven't decided what to do with them. Or you have a plot that's stuck. The law is a great device for writers. It can add an obstacle, a sexy twist, or a fun character to your story.

The law can also accidentally drift into your plot. Everything your characters touch during their day has something to do with the law. They wake up. Their cereal box has legal requirements about how contents are listed and what claims it can make.

They drive to work in a car that doesn't explode when hit from behind because of civil lawyers. They go to work and have to be paid wages and can't be subjected to discrimination.

When they make a purchase, the laws say what businesses have to disclose, what advertisements can say. Doctors have to treat them within acceptable practices or face a suit. Companies handling hazardous materials must dispose of them in particular ways.

When they get a divorce, your characters have to do it through the civil justice system. If a character dies, their will has to go through probate.
The claims characters can make in the law are almost infinite. Anything that can go wrong for them can end up in court. Whether in an accident, the workplace, a business, or in a relationship, the law can offer a slight plot twist or an entire plot. And if you're a journalist, you probably have legal issues in your stories regularly.

The purpose of The Writer's Guide to the Courtroom is to touch on some of the highlights, to give you a starting point for your research or just trigger an idea for your story. This book is for every writer who doesn't have a law degree, and even for those lawyer/​writers who are writing outside their area of practice.

Most lawyers can't read or watch stories about law because the factual errors are too frustrating. Gross misunderstanding of how the justice system works can take away from even the best plot. There are over 1.1 million lawyers in the United States, so alienating them with mistakes that are easily corrected can affect your sales and ratings.

Ms. Ballman asked some lawyers and judges, including TV's Judge Alex and bestselling author Brad Meltzer what really bugged them about how the civil justice system is portrayed in books and screenplays, and to talk about which ones really got it right. Their responses are quoted throughout this book to help you see the ways in which "getting it wrong" can alienate readers/​viewers, whereas "getting it right" can enhance the story for your audience.

Inside The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom

Here's just some of what you'll find to help inspire you and to help your characters navigate the civil justice system:

Chapter 1: The Characters Suggestions of courtroom characters you might use in your story, like bailiffs, court reporters, paralegals, judicial assistants, runners/​messengers, process servers, notaries, and of course, lawyers. Find out about their training, job duties, and maybe, just maybe, what kinds of misdeeds they might have witnessed.

Chapter 2: Settings Where is your story set? Find out what a real legal setting looks like. Whether a law office, government building, mediator's office or court chambers, your story will feel more real if you choose your setting well.

Chapter 3: Types of Lawyers Here's where to figure out what kind of lawyer you need in your story. Personality types, motivations, and how to use attorneys practicing in areas you might not ever have thought of. From admiralty to worker's compensation, there's a lawyer type just right for your story.

Chapter 4: Legal Ethics Yes, they exist. Don't have your lawyer characters doing something obviously unethical without showing some consequences. Find out what your characters are supposed to be doing, and what happens if they get caught.

Chapter 5: How Law Firms Run Who is in charge at a big firm? What's the difference between a senior and a junior partner? How do law firms bill their clients? What differences are there between the way a big firm and a solo practitioner prepare for trial? What do lawyers have to learn to live without when they form a midsize firm?

Chapter 6: Pre-Suit What happens in an initial meeting with the client? What kinds of fee arrangements might your character make? What steps might lawyers take before suit is even filed?

Chapter 7: The Complaint What's in the document that begins a lawsuit? How does it get to the defendant? Where can a lawsuit be filed? Who can sue and be sued?

Chapter 8: Responses to the Complaint What will the defendant do once they receive the complaint, other than curse a lot?

Chapter 9: The Authorities How do lawyers find out what the law is?

LOADS OF INFORMATION ON THE BASICS OF THE MAJOR TYPES OF LAW AND HOW YOU MIGHT USE THEM IN YOUR STORY

Substantive law chapters include

Chapter 10: Torts Negligence, assault, battery, false imprisonment, slander/​libel, trespass, privacy, causation and damages

Chapter 11: Cases About Employment The types of claims that might come up if your characters work

Chapter 12: Professional Malpractice

Chapter 13: Business to Business Trademark, copyright, patent, unfair trade practices, contracts, partnerships, corporations, shareholder disputes

Chapter 14: Person to Business Landlord/​tenant, consumer protection, real estate, admiralty, small claims

Chapter 15: Person to Person Divorce, auto accidents, probate

Chapter 16: Person to Government Civil rights, condemnation, zoning, government employment, government unions, elections, administrative law, abortions, civil unions and other gay rights issues

HOW CIVIL CASES WORK, FROM INTAKE TO COLLECTION

Chapter 17: Discovery How the lawyers get information. Find out how a deposition might be a better setting for your story than a trial, and how lawyers really get all those exhibits they use.

Chapter 18: Alternate Dispute Resolution Ways your story could get a final resolution without a judge. Where can your character throw a fit without going to jail? Find out about arbitration, mediation, collaborative law and private judging

Chapter 19: Trial Preparation What do lawyers have to do before they even walk into the courtroom on trial day? Jury instructions, verdict forms, exhibit and witness lists, subpoenas, and motions that might end the case or limit evidence

Chapter 20: Civil Practice Before Trial Ways your characters can interact besides trial. What happens at calendar call, motion calendar and specially set hearings?

Chapter 21: The Trial The way the trial in your story should happen, from jury selection to motions to the reading of the verdict.

Chapter 22: Post-judgment Just because your character won the trial, doesn't mean your story has to end. Motions, appeals, writs and collection.

Selected Works

Nonfiction, Career, Business
Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired will give you the specific and relevant advice you need to face any career-threatening situation…and come out ahead.
Nonfiction
Experienced lawyer giving novelists, screenwriters and journalists guidance on the civil justice system.

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