Before going to law school, I worked as an actor in New York after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I was lucky enough to land among a troop of rising actors, directors, and producers staging classical productions in a small theatre in Times Square. When I decided to pursue a career in law, I was hopeful that some of the skills I learned on the stage would translate well into a legal practice. Happily, they did. Below are the top tips I picked up as an actor that can help any newer attorney become a better practitioner.
Understand your motivation.
Actors are constantly being asked, by instructors and directors alike, about their character’s motivation. Why, exactly, is your character saying that particular line, in that particular moment? What does it mean for your character’s arc? What does it mean for the narrative of the play as a whole?
Motivation also plays a key role in many aspects of legal practice. If you take the time to understand what motivates your clients, witnesses and opponents, you will undoubtedly be a more effective advocate. Is your client motivated by securing a quick and quiet settlement, or are there important principles at stake, or perhaps a number of similarly situated potential claimants? Understanding your client’s motivation is crucial to advancing their interests. Likewise, is your opponent motivated solely by financial concerns, or are they looking for a forum in which to be heard and have their position vindicated? Understanding motivation can be surprisingly difficult; it requires stepping out of your own frame of reference and trying to view the circumstances in a way that may be diametrically opposed to the views of the client you are advocating for. But avoiding the temptation to fall back on the “our opponent is simply greedy and/or crazy” position can pay huge dividends, and inform every aspect of your behavior and presentation during the course of a case. Understanding motivation allows to you get the most leverage out of your personal communication style, which brings us to our next point…
Communicate with intent.
While on stage, there should not be a single moment when you are unaware of what you are doing with your voice, your facial expression, your eyes, your body language, even your position in space. Well-trained actors are able to convey complex and often contradictory sets of emotions at once: Your booming voice can project dominance, while a certain tension in your hands belies the fact that your aggressiveness is largely a front.
While the proper mix of emotions in the practice of law will usually be less complex, awareness and intention should inform every aspect of your communication. Your voice, face and body are always communicating something, so why not use that to your best advantage? While taking a deposition, do you want your face and voice to appear open, welcoming, and conversational, or is a sterner and more clinical approach called for? Should you maintain a very calm and placid demeanor so that when you need it, a little flash of passion or anger can have an outsize impact? Your position in the courtroom is also extremely important. Stand near the jury box, so your witnesses present their answers towards the jury even when those answers are directed to you. Move into the well during cross-examination so a witness adverse to you makes less eye contact with the jury, and consider using more physical gestures and movement to draw the jury’s focus your way. Make intentional choices about what is most suitable to the situation at hand, or to your personal communication style, and tailor your communication accordingly. Bringing awareness and intention to all aspects of your communication will optimize outcomes for you and for your clients.
Intentional communication is also critical when evaluating witnesses and determining the order in which they will testify in a deposition or at trial. Observe your witnesses’ expression, voice and body language. Do they project credibility, or something else? Do they appear confident when providing answers, or does their body language hint at them being much less sure than their words would suggest? Credibility is key, so if your witnesses are less than ideal, then just like a theatrical production you want to make sure you start and end strong: Place witnesses that may be less persuasive or provide less-compelling testimony in the middle if possible.
A lack of preparation can present as nervousness or, even worse, a lack of credibility. For actors, complete mastery of the text is essential to get past the burden of remembering lines and into the fun part – presenting the external and internal emotional life of your character. Learning lines is tedious and, for me, a slow process, but it always pays off. I have spent countless subway trips listening to a recording of myself reciting lines in a hurried monotone to get them memorized.
In the practice of law, dedicate sufficient time to rehearse any oral presentation you may have to give, no matter if it’s an opening statement in an important trial, or a simple CLE. A subpar opening statement effortlessly recited from memory is likely to be more impactful than a brilliant one read directly from the page or screen.
But beyond the obvious comparisons to opening statements and CLEs, rehearsal pays serious dividends in many aspects of a legal practice. Rehearsing an argument for a motion for summary judgment hearing will help you hone your points and improve your presentation. Internalizing your arguments and the caselaw that supports it will help you react calmly to the unexpected, whether it’s an unforeseen question from a judge or an unanticipated attack from opposing counsel.
Even without being a classically trained actor, attorneys in all areas of practice can realize immediate benefits from bringing techniques that actors use on the stage into a legal setting. Whether it’s advising your clients or persuading a judge or a jury, understanding your motivation and the motivation of those around you, communicating with intent, and internalizing the relevant facts and law will elevate your practice while avoiding unnecessary drama.
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