Improvisation in Law Practice
by Morgan Murphy
This past May, I attended the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers’ Division Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As with any legal conference worth its salt, there were ample CLEs and programs for the attendees. For me, one of the most interesting and unexpected programs was entitled “Improv for Lawyers Workshop: Using Your Inner Actor to Achieve Success in the Courtroom and the Boardroom.”
In some ways, it is obvious how improvisation helps an attorney. A lawyer who can react to testimony on the spot elicits better testimony than a lawyer who asks canned questions. Most young attorneys, myself included, rely upon prepared outlines to guide a deposition. However, as I gain more experience, I learn to listen to the testimony being provided and ask follow-up questions prompted by the deponent's testimony. Experienced lawyers have the thinnest of outlines, sometimes consisting of just a few scribbles on a legal pad. When a case proceeds to trial, in front of a jury, you need to constantly expect unexpected testimony, and even the most thorough preparation will not help if you are unable to respond and appropriately react to new information. Spontaneity and the ability to improvise can be the difference between a good lawyer, and a great lawyer.
However, improvisation and activities used by improv actors can be incorporated into your practice in other, less obvious ways. The first interactive part of the ABA program I attended required all of the attendees to stand in a circle and yell out a word or two. Everybody else in the circle then yelled, “Woo!” So, the discourse during these few minutes went something like this: “Jello!” “Woo!” “Top hat!” “Woo!” “Flowers!” “Woo!” … And so on. While this exercise was not overtly driven by improvisation, it did prove that positive energy makes a difference. Not only does a silly game like this help a group of nervous actors loosen up before a performance, it also helped a group of attorneys. After everybody in the circle unquestioningly affirmed the words of each other person in the circle, we all felt less inhibited and more willing to share our thoughts and ideas.
The improv instructor taught us that one of the tenets of improv acting is “yes and.” On the stage, the idea is that whenever a new idea is introduced, the other actors accept the idea, and then contribute a new idea. To borrow from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (a great, quick read by the way): I could say “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you could add, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Not only have you taken what I have offered, but you have added more information and given me something else off of which to work. Since attending this workshop, I have made an effort to say “yes and” when an idea is offered by a coworker or client. Not only is it more fun than saying “no,” it fosters good relationships and collaboration.
Try taking a lesson from improvisation acting back to your office or firm. You may find that you and your coworkers feel better about what you are doing together, and that you do it better.