Lawyers Weekly USA about how lawyers benefit from taking improv classes

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Improv Training Can Improve Your Trial Skills

By Amy Johnson Conner

It's not a setting where you would expect to find trial lawyers trying to hone courtroom skills, but improv classes can help litigators improve their courtroom presence and sharpen their ability to deal with the unexpected. 

In addition, improv classes offer lawyers an opportunity to practice speaking in front of a group, develop better body language, and improve their voice delivery - all in an environment where the worst that can happen is the audience doesn't laugh at your joke. 

Improv is similar to litigation "because you're out there throwing out arguments and shaping the facts into a cohesive presentation," said Todd Covert, a Knoxville, Tenn., insurance defense litigator who began doing improv before he went to law school. "I noticed right away in the trial classes I was taking that the improv skills would transfer over." 

Improv can also help lawyers think about litigation in new ways. 

"It's wonderful practice for anyone who does trial work or goes to court and thinks on their feet. It's a mental exercise," said Holly Loy, an asbestos, civil rights and government defense litigator for a medium-sized firm in Atlanta. 

An improv class that lasts six to eight weeks costs from $100 to $200, depending on the geographic area. 

Like any other pursuit outside the law, improv offers lawyers a break from the grinding routine of their work. Yet, it has the added benefit of teaching skills that will help lawyers in their careers and in their lives. 

"The brain, like many muscles, can be trained, and if you put yourself in the situation where you're reacting to a lot of different stimuli it can make you sharper in your job, whatever that job turns out to be," said Jeff Menkin, a Department of Justice prosecutor and 10-year veteran improv instructor and performer. 

Do I Have To Be Funny?

Many confuse improv with stand-up comedy, but the two styles couldn't be more different. Rather than spending time writing and memorizing jokes, improvisers act out a scene presented to them just seconds before they begin performing, in the spirit of the television show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" 

But improv doesn't have to be focused exclusively on comedy. There are plenty of classes that focus on improv skills for personal development only. 

There are also instructors like Milo Shapiro of IMPROVentures in San Diego, who offer "corporate improv" training seminars that focus on how to translate improv skills into a specific job or workplace. An Internet search engine can track down classes with any of these concentrations. 

Before signing up for a class, Shapiro suggests investigating the instructor's focus. 

"Is this a course that's geared for comedy versus a class that's geared for personal development? If it's geared for personal development, is it geared for developing your creativity? Developing your communication skills? Developing your teamwork?" he said. 

Most corporate improv instructors can tailor a course to the group's specific needs, if the group can communicate to the instructor what they want to learn. 

Shapiro, who travels nationwide, typically charges $3,500 for a six-hour corporate improv-training course with 15 people. He also offers hour-long courses for smaller or larger groups at varying rates. 

Comedy Sportz, an improv training and performance troupe in Washington, D.C., offers three levels of improv training in seven-week classes that cost $200. 

Level I workshops cover the basics of improv, including team-building, trust, speed, mime, basic scene-building and accepting and conquering fears, according to the group's website. Level II focuses on particular improv games and building skills learned in Level I. Level III takes the experienced improviser "out of their comfort-zone," according to the web site, in an effort to polish their individual skills. 

Even in the classes that are geared towards comedy, it isn't essential to be the class clown said Menkin - all you need is a willingness to step outside yourself and "let go." 

"Play the situation and the funny will come," he said. "I told my students to embrace failure. Failure is our friend." 

Thinking Two Moves Ahead

One of the most important improv skills is learning how to react quickly to the unexpected and speak while thinking a few statements ahead. 

William O'Nell of the Lendrum Law Firm, a two-lawyer civil litigation firm in San Diego, calls this skill "multi-tracking." 

"In improv, you're up there with a partner and the partner comes from left field and you've got to develop skills of multi-tracking - listening to what the person says, then formulating a response, and alternate responses to it, and planning out where it might lead to, all in a very short period of time before you might speak," he said. 

And that's exactly what happens in oral argument. 

"If the judge goes off in a direction you wouldn't think he would go, you've got to listen, begin formulating a response, and simultaneously think, 'If I take that position, where does it get me down the road?' all in a very short period of time," he continued. "Improv hones those skills." 

Improv skills also translate well into depositions, particularly the ability to size up your audience, according to Loy, the Atlanta litigator. 

In a recent deposition of a plaintiff who was suing her client, Loy cracked bad jokes and approached him with a very sweet and kind demeanor. In the end, she said he liked her - much to his attorney's chagrin. 

"If I see that this person isn't going to respond to a lawyer, I try not to be a lawyer," Loy said. But by the same token, if the witness has been well coached and begins acting hostile "I quickly become quite bitchy. I go from being the sweet little girl next door who sold you Girl Scout cookies to being the most vicious and disinterested lawyer in the world. 

"It's a matter of gauging how your audience is reacting and working with that to get the best result out of it," she said. 

On a more elemental level, improv helps lawyers become more comfortable speaking in front of a group - something that is still an issue for a surprising number of litigators. 

Shapiro said his father, a contract attorney, is a prime example of a lawyer improv could help - if only the son could convince the father to give it a try. 

"Every time he [goes to court] he's a wreck for a week before because he never gets into the groove, he never establishes a pattern where being in front of people, speaking publicly, arranging his thoughts, has become routine," he said. "If he had done something in those times in between it would just feel like another variation on speaking to a group of people and thinking productively on the fly." 

Improv classes also teach good performance skills. 

"I always hated doing oral argument and standing there saying 'uh,' and 'oh,'" Loy recalled. In improv "you get out of that because you're so used to having to think rapidly that even when you're stuck you can think of something." 

Making A Good Impression

Some studies have shown that 92 percent of the communication conveyed between people is coming not from words, but from body language, vocal tones and facials expressions, Shapiro said.

"I worked with someone who had no idea that what she said was being perceived negatively because her tone was sarcastic, she was doing a thing with her eyes that made it look like she wasn't interested in what she was saying, and she was standing in a position that was like, 'You're not going to believe this,'" he explained. 

"She learned to recognize through the improv training when she was coming across positively and coming across negatively and [learned to] be able to use both of those to her advantage, because there are times when we want to convey a negative message," he said. 

Improv also trains lawyers to think outside the box of their Socratic training, Covert said. 

Lawyers are constrained by the law in the arguments they make, just as improvisers are constrained by the rules of the games they're performing. But, improvisers create ways to play within those rules, just as lawyers who practice improv can open their minds to new, creative approaches to arguments and trial strategies, Covert said. 

"It helps you think more creatively in a way that doesn't involve the law," Loy explained. "It's always a wonderful thing, getting away from trying to think like a lawyer." 

For example, if a lawyer senses during an opening or closing argument that he is losing the jury, he can draw on previous improv training to throw away the prepared speech and try a new approach on the fly. 

"It's a big risk to take, but if you already feel like you're not doing well, it might be a better risk to wing it and relate to them than continue down a path that isn't working well," Shapiro said. "Improv is always about 'What's another thing I could do?' especially if a scene isn't going well. You ... have the option of trying something different." 

This approach can be useful in legal writing, as well. 

"At any point in your writing, stop and say, 'What directions could this go? What can I build on from there?' If you're able to think that out in your head [it's better than] writing a whole thing and saying 'That's not what I wanted. Now what am I going to do with it?'" he said. 

Learning how to move on when something doesn't go well is yet another skill lawyers can develop through improv. 

"When you're convinced your objection is right, sound and should be granted and the judge says 'overruled,' you've got to move on," Covert said. "In improv, if you get up and throw a clunker, you've got to go on." 

That bad experience also teaches how to maintain composure. 

"You learn how to roll with it and maintain [composure] because in improv you are thrown an odd situation. You step out thinking it's a scene in a butcher shop and someone says, 'Your highness, your meatloaf is ready.' You can't say 'I don't know what you're talking about.' You accept it and run with it," Menkin said. "In a courtroom situation in front of a jury, things can go wrong and you never want to let them see you sweat." 

The skills learned during improv - reading a situation and thinking quickly - can be useful outside the courtroom as well, especially when rainmaking. 

"A big part of law is sales, getting that client," Shapiro says. 

When meeting a client for the first time, lawyers must be adept at figuring out what type of communication - ultra-professional or informal - makes the client most comfortable. Skills learned in improv can help lawyers notice potential clients' cues and quickly adapt to their style. 

Low-Stakes Practice Zone 

While it is certainly possible to learn all these skills by watching and participating in trials, it's far safer to learn them during an improv course. 

"It takes some of the tension out of learning the skills [because] ... the stakes are minimal," O'Nell said. "The worst you'll get is someone will boo at you, not that you'll lose the client's case. You don't want to learn those skills the first time when there's a lot of money at stake and where someone's well-being is lying in the balance." 

Shapiro agreed. "When the risk is lower we can pick up the skill sets more effectively and apply them later," he said. 

Loy pointed out improv can be particularly useful for women. 

"I think women, in law school in particular, could stand to do anything that keeps them from trying to become so serious-minded," she said. "I think [improv] would help in the sense that you're given permission to be silly and goofy and not take yourself so seriously. I think being able to have the safety net of being able to say and do certain things in this environment might make [women] more confident and loosen up a bit and not quite so worried about coming off so professional." 

Introverts and those who are socially awkward also have a great deal to learn from improv. 

"If they get one or two gems out of a six-hour class that makes them realize they stand in a weird way or end all their sentences like questions or something like that, that's something that can pay off for the rest of their career, whereas one more class in writing summations may not affect them at all," said Shapiro.      


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