Most of us would agree that a lawyer’s education is rooted firmly in the law. But the practice of law goes well beyond legal expertise and the right wardrobe. It’s all about good communication. Lawyers need to be able to talk to and understand each other. In court, a misunderstanding has a lot of impact.
As both a trial lawyer and a graduate of a renowned acting conservatory, I’ve experienced firsthand how the tools and techniques of actors can be adapted for the courtroom in order to bring the human element to the jury.
At first blush, the similarities between the theater and the courtroom might seem as disparate as the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. But when you look beneath the surface, the connections between the two are strikingly similar.
At its core, theater is rooted in the idea that “art expresses human experience.” The same is true for trials. The very essence of a trial is a story — the story of a human experience. The goal of the attorney is to draw the jury into a re-constructed reality of past events such that they “see” what happened even though they were not present to witness the original event.
The attorney is the producer of that event as well as the writer, director, and the actor in that event. A play is also a live event with story at its core. The goal of the actor is to transform personal experience into a universal and recognizable form of expression that has the ability to change something in the spectator. Actors must guide the audience on a journey bringing with them their minds and hearts.
Hollywood’s obsession with courtroom dramas is as old as time. One need look no further than some of the most popular films of the twentieth century. Three that come right to mind are “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Verdict,” and “A few Good Men.” What would Hollywood do without lawyers?
What does an actor have to teach an attorney? On a practical level, just as there are no “do-overs” on stage, there are no “do-overs” in the courtroom. Everything is happening in real time, requiring lawyers to be just as present in the courtroom as actors are on stage.
Second, at the heart of every communication is a need for three elements: knowing your audience, knowing your subject, and knowing yourself. Knowing your jury means knowing how to speak to them in a way that conforms to their sense of fairness in an individual case. The idea here is to ease the legalese and use “power language” that awakens the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. After all, any time a juror has to “translate something” means he won’t hear the next few words.
When it comes to knowing yourself, self-awareness is considered the first step to sustainable success. Yet, in today’s egocentric generation where the next celebrity is but a YouTube video away (thanks in part to the omnipresence of popular culture and social media), it is more rare to find someone who understands themselves than it is to find an Albino Alligator (of which there are only fifty left in the entire U.S.).
Finally, 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 a jury convincingly. If they can’t be convincing with the truth, then the case might as well be over before it ever began.
Exploiting the connections between these two disciplines for the good of my clients has become my life’s work. It has ignited something inside me. It exhilarates me in ways that I cannot describe. In order to share this with my fellow lawyers, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the intricacies of acting.
Let’s begin in the simplest place. Actors are taught a technique. Technique allows actors to express themselves freely, to accept themselves for who they are, and to allow their true selves to shine through.
Having a technique is as important for lawyers as it is for actors. For example, have you ever wondered why in one trial you had more Oscar moments than you could count while in another trial you were as “green” as your first mock trial competition? Actors have pondered this question since the founding of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. The random and arbitrary nature of this phenomenon was summed up in one sentence by a popular actor from the twentieth century, “… it seems to me that usually when I have acted well, it has been by accident.”
Fast forward one century and this question evokes a radically different answer: one that is specific and concrete. Ask any Broadway actor who performs eight shows a week how they can consistently turn out one Tony-award winning performance after another and you’ll get the same answer: “Technique and lots of practice.”
The ability to perform at a peak level night in and night out is a trait that great actors and great lawyers possess, and one that I deeply admire. To me, having a technique provides me with the artistic freedom to stand in front of the jury and build something that bears my imprint just like an artist stands in front of a blank canvass and creates an original painting. The only difference is that my tools are not a canvas, palette, paints, and brushes. Instead, they are my words. Nevertheless, my words are used to paint images in the minds of the jury in the same way that an artist breaks the whiteness of the canvas with a stroke of his brush not worrying so much if it is what he’s really after but instead discovering the painting in the act of painting itself.
While “Acting for Lawyers” might sound like a theater genre, in reality it is designed to loosen up attorneys and prepare them for the practical uses of confident and effective communication in the courtroom, something that is severely lacking in courtrooms around the country today.