Behind the Book with Greig Henderson

Creating Legal Worlds: Story and Style in a Culture of Argument

Greig Henderson is the author of Creating Legal Worlds: Story and Style in a Culture of Argument. Henderson analyses how the rhetoric of storytelling often carries as much argumentative weight within a judgement as the logic of legal distinctions

How did you become involved in your area of research?
For the past thirty years I have been a faculty member and lecturer in the Judicial Writing Program sponsored by the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice, a four-day program for federally appointed judges.  I also do work for the Public Prosecutors of Canada, the Ontario Council for Written Advocacy, the National Judicial Institute, and various other legal institutions.  Over the years, I have conducted dozens of writing seminars for courts, tribunals, and law firms.  So my angle of vision is a little different from that of a legal scholar.  I tend to look at things from the point of view of the writer and the rhetorical and stylistic choices he or she must make.  My interest in legal and judicial writing connects with my teaching and research in the Department of English at the University of Toronto, teaching and research that deal with rhetoric, narrative, and literary theory.

What inspired you to write this book?
The more I taught judges how to write, the more convinced I became that narrative, rhetoric, and style are essential elements of judicial writing and that a judgment is more akin to a short story or novella than to a syllogism or deductive argument.  Storytelling is crucial to legal decision-making because the primary task of the judge is to make a coherent and convincing story out of the sometimes conflicting and contradictory particulars of a given case.  Thus the angle of vision from which the story is told (narrative perspective) and the language and style in which it is couched (narrative voice) have an impact on the decision arrived at.  The agents a judge empowers to see and say are often the agents whose arguments prevail.

What do you find most interesting about your area of research?
It was exciting to find out that aspects of rhetorical and literary theory, in addition to being tools of interpretation and analysis, have practical implications for legal writing, that focalization (narrative perspective), verbalization (narrative voice), and agency (the conferring of voluntary choice and action on selected persons or entitities) have an impact on the efficacy and persuasiveness of an argument or decision.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?
It was also exciting to find out that there’s a lot of wit and eloquence in legal writing and that many lawyers and judges are gifted stylistic and rhetorical artists working in a different genre, a genre, I think, that repays close reading in the same way that a literary text repays close reading.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Aside from the discovery of arguments, the hardest part of writing is having the courage to omit things, things that are interesting but irrelevant.  “Keeping Fury Underground: Rational Justice in Aeschylus’s Oresteia” was my favourite chapter in the original manuscript, but, eloquent as I thought it was, it had to go because it wasn’t integral to the main argument.  There were lots of other things that had to go as well.

What are your current/future projects?
I’m currently revising a review article that will come out next month in The Osgoode Hall Law Journal.  The book is David Gurnham’s Crime, Desire, and Law’s Unconscious, and I’m currently reading a great book by Ummni Khan, Vicarious Kinks: S/M in the Socio-Legal Imaginary.  When judges write about sex and eloquently evoke what they morally revile, interesting things happen.

What do you like to read for pleasure? 
I’m a crime fiction junkie.  I love the classics—Hammett, Chandler, and the like—as well as contemporary stuff by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Andrea Camilleri, and many others.