How Acting Lessons Help Lawyers Convey Their Messages

At first blush, you might hear “acting lessons for attorneys” and think “but…when I’m presenting a case, I don’t want to be seen as someone who’s acting!”  True, but hear this:  acting lessons may make you more effective.

You’re already aware that your speaking style is important…jurors and judges need to not only hear but understand your (client’s) side of the story—and that you’re the mouthpiece, as it were.  In addition, ‘though, what you stand to learn about voice inflection; your stance and about where you level your gaze, might just as well come from actors, thought a law professor who came up with the idea for acting classes.

What was, in 2008, a five-year-old program started by Fordham University, found a responsive audience in area lawyers who were “expected to perform” anyway, said one.

So what are some of the techniques to be picked up from actors?

It might be the feedback more than anything, said law professor James Cohen, who taught the classes.   “As a profession, we don’t get a lot of critique beyond the verdict. I try a lot of criminal cases, and the jury, usually, votes guilty. If I took that as a complete comment on my performance, I would have gotten out of this business a long time ago,” he says.

But—using the skills he teaches–he’s also stared opposing attorneys down if he finds a question slightly insulting.  He might also ask what the lawyer’s credentials are in asking such a question.

In the workshops/classes, professional actors play witnesses in pretend corporate lawsuits, while associates mock-question them.  (The scenarios usually featured shareholder disputes or a breach of contract.)

Professor Cohen used to use paralegals instead of actors to play the witnesses, but actors were less expensive-and they probably welcomed the work.

Professional development departments of East Coast law firms heard of Cohen through listservs and word-of-mouth referrals.  When they discovered the successes the professor was having with simple tactics like proper breathing and the correct hand gestures, they were impressed enough to send their staff.

And lo and behold, attorneys jibed with the point-of-view and vocabulary of actors, said Cohen.

One attorney, a Simpson Thacher associate who had a lot of anxiety going in to the class, reported that it turned into a positive experience.  What did she take away?  The associate was delivering her lines in rapid-fire mode and was told to slow her speech pattern down and to vary the monotone-like quality to her voice.

Other tricks-of-the-trade: stand with equal weight on both feet and avoid putting your hands in your pocket.  Also, the time-honored “make eye contact with your jury”—as simple as it sounds—needed to be emphasized.   To read more, go to: http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202421971174&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1

-EM

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