Courtroom Drama – Training Lawyers to Act

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    What does an actor have to teach an attorney? Acting, improvisation, communicating, moving on stage. Sounds like an acting class. Don’t be surprised. It is.

    Most of us would agree a lawyer’s education is mostly about the law; but the practical application of law requires research, practice, experience and some knowledge of speech and acting skills that may not be taught in depth in most law schools–just few classes on courtroom procedure, some mock trials, etc.

    Those who will be spending time in court could use training in public speaking, interpersonal communication skills, social psychology, etc., and some lawyers do take those classes in college because they know they will be important someday. For others, even if they took the courses, they may have blown them off, seeing them as “fluff” classes. We’ve all done that. You only have so much time, right?

    “After all, I’m going to be a lawyer–a mouthpiece. I can learn all I need to learn in law school,” or words to that effect–or so they say.

    Let’s face it. Not everyone is a natural communicator. Sometimes you need a different approach. In this case, we’ll start with acting principles. Actors have to make real what is conceived and written in a script. Lawyers take what they know to be the truth and convey that to an audience convincingly. If they can’t be convincing with the truth…

    It’s all about knowing your audience, knowing your subject and knowing yourself. If you’ve ready many of my blogs you know that is my mantra. At the heart of every communication is a need for all three elements. While some people are more natural communicators, others with fine minds as well may not be. You know about getting the training you need to do the job. Those who do get the training and learn will succeed. And, so it goes here as well if you are lawyer needing to communicate the law and persuade the jury to your way of thinking, a way any audience can understand.

    So, how does a litigator gain those communication skills that help him win over a judge and jury, how does an attorney present depositions to court, help a witness remain credible, even though he or she may be scared to death of being on the courtroom stage. Believe it or not, he hires an actor. Often that actor may be partnered with an attorney or someone with a similar background.

    In the Philadelphia area, I discovered an equity actor and educator, Celeste Walker who teaches a course she developed called Courtroom Drama, which almost sounds like a theatre genre, but in reality her course is designed to loosen up attorneys and prepare them for the practical uses of confident and effective communication in the courtroom. She uses theatre exercises, warm-ups, improvisation and other methods leading up to storytelling. After all, in a courtroom, it is all about storytelling.

    “It’s also about audience,” Walker says.

    “An attorney can’t talk to a jury if he or she isn’t aware of who makes up that jury. He has to win that jury’s trust and he’s not going to do that if he talks down to them or can’t look them in the eye while he is talking to them.”

    It’s all about good communication. Yet, another job an actor can do–besides acting.

    An interesting aside. I was surprised to learn that Celeste had actually performed a scene from The Verdict with Paul Newman in 1994 while she was in graduate school. Newman’s much acclaimed film, The Verdict, came out in the ’80s. Celeste holds a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Acting from The Actor’s Studio Drama School at the New School University in New York.

    This isn’t just a Philadelphia phenomenon. Look around. There are other actors/educators engaged in the same business. If you are an attorney and are interested, look up the acting and presentation coaches in your area who might have a similar course to suit you. If you aren’t an attorney, but anyone in need of good communication skills in the course of doing a good job, check out those acting and presentation coaches anyway.

    Good trainers are good communicators, and it can work both ways. We all need to be able to talk to and understand each other. In court, a misunderstanding has a lot of impact. The same goes for hospitals. Do doctors need training in communicating to patients and colleagues? Hmm. Maybe that’s my next blog.

    As always, comments, suggestions, praise if you think we’re doing something right here, as well as links to your blogs and websites are always welcome.

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