Contributing professional

Sarah Lunham

Forensic Biographies: The Art of Finding Your Client's Authentic Self

In 1917, a young man was working in a small town barber shop in Cherokee, Iowa. He was perfectly content with his quiet and simple life. However, that all changed in July of that year when he answered his nation’s call for volunteers to fight in what was then known as the “Great World War” (we know it today as “WWI”). No one could have imagined the courage and heroism that was embedded deep within that young man on the day he joined.

After only a few short months, the young man found himself in the thick of the war, serving on the front lines on the Western Front in France as part of the famed Rainbow Division. After fighting for nearly seven months in dense combat, Private Martin Treptow learned of a critical message that needed to be delivered from his fighting position to another that was located across the river and up the hill. The contents of the message included information to coordinate an assault effort and finally repel the enemy – hopefully ending the battle that day. 

Treptow knew the stakes were high, but he didn’t hesitate for a second. He immediately volunteered to deliver the crucial message, knowing full well that he would be traveling under intense gun and artillery fire in order to get it there. Ultimately, Treptow was killed by a hail of German gunfire, but not before he delivered the message. Treptow fell just as he was nearing the end of his heroic sprint. He used his last few seconds on earth to crawl toward the other position and make sure the message was handed off. It is not known how many lives he saved that day, nor is it possible to ascertain the exact impact his efforts made on the war. However, the selflessness of his actions have rippled throughout history and have helped cultivate the necessary fighting spirit and mantras of selfless service that shaped hundreds of thousands of American men and women who have served their nation since.

Treptow gave his life to make sure his brothers on the ground were able to coordinate their efforts and repel the enemy assault. The Americans coordinated their counter attack swiftly and ended that battle with the German’s retreating. As the American soldiers were collecting the bodies of their fallen brothers, Treptow’s remains were also recovered. As they were moving him, they found a diary sticking out of the pocket of his blood-stained shirt. Upon inspection, they saw something just inside the front cover that truly gave insight into who Treptow was. They found his handwritten words:

My Pledge
“America must win this war. 
Therefore, I will work, 
I will save, 
I will sacrifice, 
I will endure, 
I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, 
as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

Treptow’s words and actions circled the front lines quickly. Many soldiers found a renewed inspiration and a sense that they too could push beyond their own limits. In fact, there were many who wrote his pledge in their own diaries to keep his fighting spirit alive with them. Treptow literally moved an Army. To this day, Treptow’s story inspires generation after generation of young men and woman who serve their country. His pledge can be found in soldier’s diaries, his story shared during boot camp, and they even routinely echo the halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point. 

In fact, Treptow’s words and actions even inspired a US President nearly 60 years after his death when President Ronald Reagan emotionally told the world about his courage and sacrifice during his inaugural address in 1981.

Check this out:

These words are Treptow’s legacy. 

The soldiers who served with him would have likely known he was reliable, dependable and many probably even knew he was likely willing to do whatever needed to be done – no matter what the cost. However, history remembers him because he lived and died by his words and those words survived to reveal to the world who he was. They reveal his true, authentic self.

Martin Treptow was far from what you would imagine when you picture a soldier. He was not a formidable man. He was of average height and build at best, but what truly defined him was the fact that he was absolutely committed to doing his part and fulfilling his duty as a war fighter. He exemplified what we want our military to be. He was courageous, mentally tough, and selfless. He believed in the cause and pursuit of freedom so passionately that he was willing to push himself to the outer edge of human limits and ultimately sacrifice his life to advance it.

But What Does This Have To Do With An Injury Case?

Lets pause and take a second to pretend that one of two alternative scenarios occurred. In the first, lets consider what would have happened if Treptow had survived his heroic sprint; and in the second, what if he did not survive – but the diary was never uncovered.

In the first scenario, we can ask ourselves what significance his diary would have had on the world? Would it have caused the same levels of inspiration? Likely not. More likely, he would have simply been just another guy who “did his job.” Would the other soldiers have been as inspired by his boldness, courage, and willingness to sacrifice? Again, probably not. It’s very unlikely that his words would have spread far and wide and go on to inspire generations of war fighters like they did.

Contrast that with the next scenario – where his diary isn’t found – what significance would his sacrifice have had? Probably very little. That’s not to say that peoples’ lives would not have been turned upside down by the loss. I am sure he would have been missed by his family and fellow soldiers; but to most of the world – he would have just been another casualty of war. It’s very likely that his memory would be lost to time once those who cared about him passed on too.

The truth is, you need the context of the story coupled with the traumatic event for it to have a true impact and long lasting meaning. The real reason Martin Treptow is still relevant today is because of the horrible situation he found himself in, coupled with the knowledge of who he truly was because his diary has connected him to hundreds of thousands of others on an emotional level. A level so deep, that has transcended generations and withstood the test of time. Most soldiers wish they could be like him. They hope they can act like he did if ever faced with that scenario. He was a fighter. A hero. We all love heroes and somewhere deep down inside we all want to be one. 

When you have a client who experienced a traumatic event, they are always a hero in that story. However, they can’t be the ones to tell it. A hero does not self promote – that’s a braggart. America likes heroes, but we don’t like people who brag about their accomplishments. We don’t have time for them. We roll our eyes when they aren’t looking. 

So, how do you make your client the hero in the story? You have to find their diary.

Finding Your Client’s Diary.

I am not saying to find your client’s actual handwritten diary. However, I am saying that you need to get to know the client and to find witnesses who can show your client to the world and reveal their authentic self. For Martin Treptow, his diary was the best witness to his life and his story. No one would care about his story if he told it himself. That self-promotion would have had almost no effect. But think about what it was like when you saw President Reagan tell the story in the video above? You can sense the emotional connection he felt when his voice cracked. Did it mean something then when someone else told it? Of course it did. 

What this all means is that your client can never be the star witness of their own story. Because no one would believe them. It is very difficult for Americans to set aside their own biases and judgments when the person telling the story is 100% vested in it and has something to gain from the outcome.

Now, imagine the power of the testimony of the young lieutenant who watched Treptow fall beside the fighting position and crawl forward with his arm extended saying, “I have a message for you, sir,” dying and covered in his own blood. Powerful witness? What if that guy testified? Would people believe him? No question. 

What about the guy who thought Treptow was bat shit crazy when he heard him say “I’ll do it” as he volunteered to carry the message across the battlefield? Would we believe him if he testified? You betcha.

These people can testify to his life and reveal who he is. That’s what finding your client’s diary is all about. It is about finding the right people who can help frame your client and tell the human story, and they aren’t always who you would expect. The human story will help the jury connect with the client and aid in creating some of the emotion needed to drive a higher verdict. When the client’s story is told correctly, and by the right people, the jury will grow to love and respect your client and the anger toward the defendant will even burn deeply because of it. A properly crafted client biography helps you find that human story and frame the narrative to make your client the hero of their story. A biography helps you create your client’s diary.

What Are Client Biographies?

Client Biographies are the foundation for telling your client’s story. Who was your client before they were injured, and who have they transformed into as a result? The art of forensic biographical writing is truly unique and requires a very particular set of skills and knowledge. The biography will help the trial lawyer uncover the client’s major truths and reveal what makes them uniquely authentic. Juror’s love authenticity.

The qualities, traits, and circumstances that make your client unique must be emphasized in the biography, especially when evaluating damages. Special attention must be paid to what role they played in their family and their community. Consideration is often given to their deepest passions, beliefs, and desires. Only then can we truly begin to see and build our hero up with a story that supports them.

Biographies are often challenging and take a lot of time. It takes great courage to be authentic because being authentic means exposing our insecurities, vulnerabilities, and fears. Being authentic also means taking off the masks that we wear in the presence of others and being our true selves. For most, authenticity is difficult to achieve. We’ve been taught all our lives that fitting in is important, and the ones who are left out are somehow weak and insufficient. This should always be top of mind when dealing with clients and trying to reveal their stories. 

A properly crafted, professional, client biography will uncover the true, authentic client and help arm the best trial attorneys with the information needed to show that person to the world (or jury pool).  

What Is The Best Way to Uncover Your Authentic Client?

The first thing you should do is hire a professional forensic journalist who specializes in this niche area of investigative research and human story telling. There are likely about a dozen or so highly skilled forensic biographers in the United States who enjoy a good reputation in this specialized area, and you would be in good hands and lucky to work with any one of them.

I have learned over several years of working with attorneys that lawyers are very good at a lot of things. Most are even good at interviewing and connecting with people; however, conducting forensic interviews, gathering sensitive information, and framing a client’s human story is a special skill that takes years to master. 

To do a forensic biography correctly, it takes several hours of rapport building and interviewing of the client, often over several days; interviewing people who knew the client (both before and after the injury event); and also a considerable amount of time gathering photos and videos; and gathering objective information about the impact the event and injuries have had on the client’s life. Then you need to sit down with all that information and start to put it together like a puzzle while framing every piece of information that is included.

A highly skilled biographer will then be able to take that information and put together a human story and reveals your client’s authentic self and their true strength in a way the client could not even see or piece together themselves. 

Finding that human story is critical and it is what great forensic journalists do well. 

Merging the underdog and the hero – creating a superhero from America’s two favorite characters.

Many lawyers fear their client’s recovery because they think it hurts their case. However, I encourage you to not be afraid to show that your client is doing well. The situation is what it is. If it’s bad, it’s bad. If it’s improving, it’s improving. Juries will see through exaggerating clients and it will hurt your case. 

Don’t forget that in America – we love our heroes and we also love an underdog who was able to rise. We cheerfully root for a person who can deal with the worst possible things in life and still find ways to make it. We are inspired by them and again, we all secretly hope deep down inside that we can be them if we are ever faced with a bad situation.

I bring this up because many attorneys focus their damages energy on the injury event and then they want their client to be their star witness; usually with the underlying intent of trying to gain sympathy, but that is often proven to be a mistake. That strategy only gets you so far. Injuries and pain are things that certainly have an important place in the case, but they will rarely get the jury on your side and drive a big verdict.

The thing is, you don’t necessarily want the jury to just feel bad for your client – you want them to be able to relate to your client, and to like them because what will truly drive your verdict is the ability to generate a swelling pool of anger that is felt in the jury box and directed toward the defendant for their part in hurting your client. However, you can only do that if your client is someone that the jury likes and can relate to. Only, if your client is their hero in the courtroom. America wants to honor and protect their heroes, so let them.

However, in order to do that, you must remember to first create the opportunity for them. You must be able to show the hero’s struggle, their climb, their drive, and their intestinal fortitude that they found in the face of great challenges and adversity. You must place their hard work to recover and their fighting spirit front and center; because that is what will move the jury and allow them to spring into action. That is what makes the jury want to protect the client who has been selflessly carrying the weight of the world. The jury will want to take the weight off and they will hurl that weight at the defendant with a biblical anger – because you will create the opportunity and then empower them to do it by letting other people build your hero and tell their human story.

Unlike Martin Treptow, your client had no choice in their participation in the circumstances surrounding their injuries. They are innocent, helpless victims that found themselves on a battleground of the unknown. They did not have a choice to volunteer like Treptow did. Nonetheless, they rose from the worst possible human situation and have been doing their part – empower your jury to do theirs.

Final Thoughts

The best thing you can do for your client when they are catastrophically injured is find someone who can help you frame your client as the hero, or even better, as the underdog and hero to create a superhero. A skilled forensic journalist will help uncover things you didn’t even know about your client, help you find people who can bear witness to the client’s authentic self, and ultimately help you give the jury what they truly want –  what they need – a hero they can connect with because the jury will love and do anything they can to protect that person.

Private Martin Treptow

Other than the diary, there is little known information about the contents of Treptow’s diary. It’s safe to assume that the diary included stories, memories, and experiences unique to Treptow’s time in the war.

If we had the opportunity to interview people who knew Treptow today, we would ask them why he joined the Army. They might tell us that he felt an obligation to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Army, or that after watching all his friends join the war’s efforts, he too, felt compelled to fight. If we ask why he chose to take the message in the midst of gunfire that day, they may tell us that he was afraid, but that it was obvious his courage was greater than his fear. 

Regardless of what they might say, the answer will help us uncover his authentic self. Every client has unique qualities and characteristics that set them apart from others – just like Martin Treptow.

Who is your client? What makes them authentic?

What would their diary say?


About the Author

Sarah Lunham is a professional forensic journalist who grew up in a small town in central North Carolina. Sarah started her professional career by working for various newspapers including The Asheville Citizen Times and The Greensboro News and Record after earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. She cut her teeth as a professional biographer by interviewing & helping families craft obituaries for the newspaper after losing their family members. So she is no stranger to working in emotional delicate situations. She has also written published articles and stories that have been published over the years. Sarah currently lives in New York and has over 17 years experience in the field of interviewing, forensic writing, and editing stories about people. Sarah is passionate about her efforts to capture the lives of the most severely injured individuals in the clearest, most concise, and honest manner. She has authored over 100 injury victim biographies and traveled to work with injury victims in about a dozen states. Sarah compassionately works with families who lost a loved one and is very well known for her ability work with clients who have suffered traumatic amputations, brain Injuries, and those suffering from psychological injuries who have difficulty telling their own stories.

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