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Lawyers learn acting to better sway real-world trials

Posted Oct. 08, 2012, at 5:54 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 09, 2012, at 9:34 a.m.
Jasmine Ireland helped conduct a seminar at the Penobscot Theatre Company for members of the Penobscot County Bar Association to improve their communication skills.
Jasmine Ireland helped conduct a seminar at the Penobscot Theatre Company for members of the Penobscot County Bar Association to improve their communication skills. Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — It never occurred to Bangor lawyer Christopher Largay there might be a connection between acting and the law until he took a seminar last month offered by the Penobscot Theatre Company.

About a dozen members of the Penobscot County Bar Association took part in an evening seminar called “Effective Communication for Lawyers.”

It was the theater company’s first offering in what it hopes will be a successful new educational program for local businesses and organizations, Jasmine Ireland, director of education and outreach, said recently.

“Many of the skills we use onstage are useful offstage in the real world,” Ireland said. “This is a new outreach for us into the community. We want business and organizations to see us as a resource that can help them be more effective.”

Largay, whose practice includes civil and criminal law, said that in law school future litigators are trained to be themselves, not to act in a courtroom or with clients as if they were onstage.

“But the PTC class offered additional and different insights,” he said in an email after the seminar. “It was incredibly helpful in educating the lawyers about the proper use of body language and the perceptions of jurors, judges and others who are evaluating our performances in the courtroom.

“The instructors were engaging and funny, and kept it light,” Largay continued. “So much of what we do is so serious and intense. This was an open and relaxing seminar that left me with an impression that there’s more to the practice of law than the spoken word.”

That was the message Ireland hoped would sink in.

“Communicating effectively is 7 percent what you say, 38 percent how you say it and 55 percent the way you look — the nonverbal cues you give the people you are talking to,” she said last month as the three-hour seminar began.

The class exercises included increasing physicality, posture awareness, vocal exercises, storytelling and improvisation.

Teaching attorneys acting and improvisational skills appears to be a growing trend. Joey Novick, a comedian and attorney based in New Jersey, will conduct a seminar, “Improv for Lawyers,” next month in Washington, D.C., at the American Association for Justice.

Novick was a successful stand-up comic for years before graduating in 2005 from Seton Hall School of Law in Newark, N.J.

“Improv-based learning helps lawyers break patterns and instead influence, adapt, and respond in new ways,” a description of Novick’s seminar on the association’s website said.

The Likable Lawyer, a website that offers continuing legal education programs for attorneys, also offers tips on a page called the Improvisational Lawyer. Attorneys are called to use improvisational skills, which include fostering an environment of rapport, creativity and co-creation, on a daily basis, the Likable Lawyer said.

“In these situations, we are often required to process and respond instantaneously,” the website said. “And successful resolution depends on our ability to persuade the others to our ideas. Our success is compromised, and the scene fails, if they get defensive or antagonistic. And as opposed to stage performances, legal improvisation is further complicated because there are real-life consequences at stake.”

N. Laurence Willey Jr., a lawyer in Bangor for more than three decades, said he took the PTC seminar to hone his communication skills.

“After 36 years of practice, I decided there are things I needed to do better,” he said last month. “I think, as lawyers, we realize we can always do a better job communicating.”

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