Improv Comedy and the Practice of Law

The following is from guest blogger Tommy Galan, a former trial attorney and the current Director of Corporate Programming at The Peoples Improv Theater in New York City, where he teaches Improv(ed) Legal Skills, a CLE that shows attorneys how to use the tool of improvisation.

For six years, life has been nothing but eat, sleep and breathe this case.  You collect yourself.  The first line of your opening statement flows like poetry…and then your mind goes blank.  Your face is flush, and your hands clam up.  All eyes are on you.  What do you do?  Improvise.

Attorneys are performers.  We take the stage every time we enter a courtroom, negotiate, and even during client intake.  Every great performer must be prepared, but the best preparation is not foolproof.  Witnesses give unexpected answers, judges throw curveballs, and our own minds defy us when we need them most.  It is in these moments that we improvise.  The skills honed by a comedic improv performer serve as tools that can benefit lawyers in any area of law.

The following are some of the improv skills that are particularly useful to attorneys:

  • Energy. The quickest way to lose a jury, judge or other “audience” member is to take the stage with low energy.  If a lawyer enters a courtroom slow and tired, his audience will never get on board.  Attorneys should arrive early and use a physical activity that energizes.  Simple exercises like running, or an improv energy generating game can be the difference between a positive or negative first impression.
  • Fast thinking. When we are challenged with the unexpected, we have a choice:  Retreat into our shell and show our lack of confidence, or stay grounded in the moment, fully conscious of body language and the non-verbal messages we are sending.  Without panicking, the improviser, cool and collected, moves to the next thought.  To the jury, it appears as though everything is under control and moving according to plan. Curve balls happen, and the improviser knows how to deal with them.
  • Listening, Memory and Intuition. The practice of improv is the practice of improving our ability to listen actively and attentively.  Nothing tells a potential client that you care more than an honest listening ear.  At a deposition, your entire approach may shift because of the tiniest detail in a response.  Carefully observing the body language of your judge and/or jury gives you insight into their thoughts and can affect the trajectory of your approach.  When an improviser is onstage, the details at the beginning of a scene inform the middle and end of the scene.
  • Public speaking. Attorneys should be comfortable speaking in public if they expect to excel in the profession. Improv training offers tools and philosophy that support us in this challenge of public speaking.
  • Saying yes. The cornerstone of improv is “Yes, and…”  Too often in life, we find ourselves in the knee-jerk position of saying “No.” “No” is about control and safety, but it also leads us nowhere.  When we recondition ourselves to say, “Yes” we become a more creative team with many more options and solutions.  Being a lawyer requires us to use our creative minds when we are on the spot.  Too often we choke our own progress by saying “No” to ourselves.  When we use improv to change our paradigm from “No” to “Yes,” we find that opportunities, possibilities, and success begin to flow in abundance.

We are all improvisers.  We live moment to moment.  Curve balls come from every angle, and the most successful attorneys take advantage of every tool they can find.  Using improv hones the skill that keeps the tools razor sharp.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

5 Responses

  1. Yet another useful tip for lawyers from the world of acting.
    This one could be helpful both within and outside the courtroom.

  2. Very nice … long ago when I was preparing for an appellate argument I was fortunate enough to have a mentor tell me “put down the notes … you know the case better than the judges.” The message: have confidence when presenting and you will be more effective. Since that time I seldom use notes when making a presentation, examining a witness or making a statement to a jury. Have confidence and put down the notes! Improv is more natural and much better received by the audience/jury.

  3. I really enjoy this article, and it’s similar to one I did based on a workshop I attended with Dan Klein (any chance you know him?). My post, if you’re interested, is Improv for Attorneys: Theater-Based Skills for More Confidence, Quick Thinking and Creative Problem Solving, http://cogentlegal.com/blog/2011/07/05/improv-for-attorneys/. These skills are really useful for attorneys in particular and business professionals in general.

  4. I had the opportunity to take part in one of Mr. Galan’s events a few weeks ago at a student ABA leadership summit. I would highly encourage firm partners, law school leadership, and any other group which hopes to foster better communication skills, confidence in speaking, and facilitation of outside of the box thinking in their group to look into hiring Mr. Galan or one of his contemporaries.

    I passed his information along to a student leader at my school and hope to attend another one of Mr. Galan’s sessions when he comes for a session before our exams this winter.

  5. […] Continuing Education of the Bar-California-Blog […]

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